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7 Things You Should Know about Ash Wednesday

7 Things You Should Know about Ash Wednesday

Chances are you’ll see a bunch of folks walking around with shmutz on their foreheads this Wednesday (Feb. 14). What does having a dirty forehead have to do with being a Christian and why this ritual is gaining in popularity? What is the significance behind Ash Wednesday and why do Christians still attend Ash Wednesday services? Even if you attend one at your church you may not know the history behind it.

Well, here is what you need to know:

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  • 1. Why you may see people with dirt on their foreheads

    1. Why you may see people with dirt on their foreheads

    Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day many Christians mark as the first day of Lent, the time of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter Sunday. Clergy all over the world dispense ashes, usually made by burning the palm fronds distributed on last year’s Palm Sunday, making the sign of the cross on the bowed foreheads before them. As they “impose” or “dispense” the ashes, the pastor or priest reminds each Christian of Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

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  • 2. A Somber Occasion

    2. A Somber Occasion

    It isn’t intended to be a downer. It’s supposed to be a reminder that our lives are short and we must live them to the fullest. OK, maybe it’s a little bit of a downer — that verse from Genesis is what God said to Adam and Eve when he expelled them from the Garden of Eden for their sins. But there’s a big party the night before Ash Wednesday. That’s Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” a secular observance that evolved out of “Shrove Tuesday,” the last hurrah – usually marked by eating of pancakes or other sinfully sweet foods – before the solemnity and penance of Lent set in.

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  • 3. How long is Lent?

    3. How long is Lent?

    Fun fact: Lent is actually longer than 40 days. There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but most churches don’t count the Sundays as part of Lent. Many Christians choose to give something up during Lent as a reminder of Jesus' sacrifice. Lent serves as a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter.

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  • 4. Do all Christians observe Ash Wednesday?

    4. Do all Christians observe Ash Wednesday?

    It used to be true that Catholics made up the lion’s share of people celebrating Ash Wednesday. But today, most “liturgical churches” — those with a regular, calendar-based liturgy, or set of rituals and observances — mark the day, including Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestants. Some evangelicals are even beginning to get into the spirit as Baptist churches in Alabama, Texas and Arkansas have smeared some ash in recent years. But the majority of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians don’t observe the day, and neither do Mormons.

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  • 5. Do you have to go to church before or after work to get your ashes?

    5. Do you have to go to church before or after work to get your ashes?

    Not anymore! Many churches, ministries and clergy offer “ashes to go,” which can range from dispensing ashes on subway and train platforms, on street corners and other urban crossroads. Some enterprising Christians even offer ashes in a drive-thru. You can read more about modern-day Ash Wednesday practices in this article.

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  • 6. Is Ash Wednesday in the Bible?

    6. Is Ash Wednesday in the Bible?

    No, there is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible. But there is a tradition of donning ashes as a sign of penitence that predates Jesus. In the Old Testament, Job repents “in dust and ashes,” and there are other associations of ashes and repentance in Esther, Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. By the 10th century, the monk Aelfric tied the practice, which dates to the eighth century, to the period before Easter, writing, “Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” By the 11th century, the practice was widespread throughout the church — until Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, threw the practice out in the 16th century because it was not biblically based. There’s no Lent in the Bible, either, though many Christians see it as an imitation of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and battling with Satan in the desert.

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  • 7. When can you wash the ashes off your face?

    7. When can you wash the ashes off your face?

    No one is required to keep the ashes on his or her face after the ritual. But some Christians choose to, perhaps as a reminder to themselves that they are mortal and fallible, while others may choose to leave them on as a witness to their faith in the hope others will ask about them and open a door to sharing their faith.

    Based on the Religion News Service article "What is Ash Wednesday Really Mean?" published on

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