Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance that starts the Season of Lent. Roman Catholic Churches, as well as other denominations, including Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches, observe the holy day.
While the details of observances vary throughout denominations, Ash Wednesday signifies the sorrow of sin and the regret that Christians feel for the sins they have committed throughout the year. The wearing of the ashen cross continues to be an outward demonstration of the penance.
In the Western Christian calendar, the day falls 46 days before Easter, counting Sundays. Depending on the year, it may be as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. This year, it falls on March 9.
The origins of Ash Wednesday can be found in the Bible, according to About.com . While the specific holiday is not ordered in Bible, believers use ashes as symbols of repentance and mourning in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
As reported by the Diocese of London , Ash Wednesday gets its name from the Christian tradition of making the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of followers. Wearing the ashen symbol signifies both penitence and faith in Christ.
In the early days of Christianity, people of faith who had committed very serious sins were expected to perform public penance for 40 days. As this penance commenced, the Bishop would then bless the hair shirts which were required garments during this penance; he also would sprinkle ashes over them that were made from palms.
The repentant Christians were then to recite the Seven Penitential Psalms, and they were promptly cast out of the church, in the way that Adam was cast out of the Garden of Eden, according to Catholic Online . After 40 days, these early Christians were then allowed back into the church and were given sacramental absolution.
Later, the tradition transformed. The ashen penance became customary for all Christians, and Ash Wednesday became established as a religious holiday. In earliest observances, the distribution of ashes to the congregation was followed by a penitential procession.
The ashes are still often created from the burned palm crosses of the previous Easter. Before they are placed on the forehead of church-goers, they’re typically mixed with holy water or oil.
Today, Ash Wednesday is a very symbolic day for many Christians.