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The ‘Splainer: Ash Wednesday and Christian foreheads

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

(RNS) Chances are you’ll see a bunch of folks walking around with shmutz on their foreheads this Wednesday (Feb. 10). The ‘Splainer asks what having a dirty forehead has to do with being a Christian and why this ritual is gaining in popularity.

Q: Excuse me, but why do you have dirt on your forehead?

A: 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.”

Q: Well, that’s cheerful. Why would anyone want to start a workday on such a downer?

A: 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.

Q: OK, so don’t invite me over for dinner until Lent is over in 40 days.

A: 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.

Q: I thought only Catholics marked Ash Wednesday?

Mary Jo Binker of Rosslyn, Va. receives ashes from the Rev. Kyle Oliver, assistant priest at St. Paul’s Parish in Washington, D.C., on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014) near the Foggy Bottom Metro station in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Mary Jo Binker of Rosslyn, Va. receives ashes from the Rev. Kyle Oliver, assistant priest at St. Paul’s Parish in Washington, D.C., on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014) near the Foggy Bottom Metro station in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

A: Not anymore. 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.

Q: Do you have to go to church before or after work to get your ashes?

A: 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.

View “Photo Slideshow: ‘Ashes to Go’ meets commuters in Washington, D.C.”

Q: I don’t remember reading about Ash Wednesday in the Bible. Where did the practice come from?

A: That’s true; 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.

Q: When can you wash the dirt off your face?

A: 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.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • I was raised in the Catholic Church and did as I was taught out of respect for my mother, a devout Catholic. I ALWAYS had questions in my mind about what I was doing and why. I’m so grateful to know the history of all these things now and so blessed to be “FREE at last”. 🙂

  • CMR,

    Exactly! My parents used to be Catholic and observe those man-made traditions which are not Bible-based!

    I’m like you and grateful to know the “truth that will set you free” (John 8:32) from man-made traditions, such as these, which are not truths from God’s Word, the Bible.

  • Neither is the celebration of Christmas or Easter in the Bible but I would venture to bet that everyone condemning Ash Wednesday, because it is not in the Bible, celebrate those dates!

  • SandyFar, not to speak on Fran’s behalf but she’s a Jehovah’s Witness and doesn’t celebrate Christmas either. They do celebrate a form of Easter on Nisan 14, however, as they believe this is specifically biblically based. You have a good point about the majority of Protestant denominations, however.

  • There is a biblical mention and for the tradition of wearing ashes for repentance in the Old Testament. You need to read your Bible more clearly in Esther, Samuel, Job, and Jeremiah.

  • Garson and SandyFar,

    No, we do not celebrate Easter, a pagan tradition (Easter bunny, etc.) at all relating to the resurrection of Jesus, which Jesus did not request his disciples to memorialize. Nor do we celebrate Christmas, also because it is a pagan man-made tradition (Google origins of Easter and Christmas).

    We do, however, observe the memorial of Jesus’ death, held on the corresponding date of Nisan 14 of the Jewish calendar every year, when Jesus instituted it just before his death and instructed his disciples to continue to do in remembrance of him. That instituted Jesus’ covenant with his disciples for a heavenly kingdom (Luke 22:7-20), and is commonly known as the Lord’s evening meal.

  • Fr. Allen,

    Yes, that is true in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, while the nation of Israel was under the Mosaic Law, and before Jesus’ arrival on earth.

    However, the new covenant that Jesus made with his disciples at the Lord’s evening meal before his death was for a heavenly kingdom, of which they would become a part (Luke 22:7-20).

    In addition, Jesus willingly and out of his love for his Father, God, and us humans, gave his life as a perfect ransom sacrifice for all imperfect mankind (Matthew 20:28).

    Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17), so it is no longer necessary nor in effect; and Christians today are able to receive forgiveness of their sins on the basis of that ransom sacrifice, and not through animal sacrifices.

  • The bible is so different to each reader that everyone has their own opinion. People bent it to accommodate their faith. You know just do whatever helps you to believe, an apple is an apple no faith is going to change that. Trust your heart it’s usually right. You can loose faith in others and your self, but if you believe that is all you need there is no more faith a fact is a fact and what is true is true. Just start to believe and you’ll find out it’s easy to accept others and their faith without any Judgment or criticism. Because everyone is just looking for the answer Amen.

  • Remember-Wrong! We must stick to what the Bible says because man
    shall perish because of their lack of knowledge. Jesus said you are one
    of Mine only if you continue in My teachings/follow Me! If you’ve created
    something should someone else get the credit for it? No they should not!
    It’s the same with God! God/Jesus created the world so they get the credit.
    Only one God went to the Cross because there is only one God! For you
    to say all truths are the same does not make any sense cause each belief
    teaches somethin different plus all these other false religions say you have
    to earn your way to heaven and even then they have no assurance when
    they die if they are all saved/going to heaven but with Jesus He says if you
    Repent/put your trust in Me you are saved! Jesus is the only way to heaven!
    If there were others ways/gods why would He/God/Jesus go to the Cross?
    Only one God went to the Cross/died for our sins cause there is only one
    God/the God of the Bible! Jesus Christ is the Messiah/only way to heaven!

    The Bible says the heart is wicked/deceitful and that is why we all need the
    Bible/Jesus because we are a/all wretched sinners who all need to Repent!
    1 Corinthians 6:9-12 and Romans 1:18-32 plus 1 Corinthians 5 the whole
    chapter and Luke 13 are a good place in the Bible for you to read. Some
    people only want to read part of the Bible/only talk about some of the sins
    but the Bible says all sins are wrong not just gay marriage and/or abortion.

    Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that all
    drunkards go to hell including people who get drunk on strong wine cause
    the wine Jesus made was diluted/made for a symbolic reason. John 2:10
    says the cheap wine was brought out last so best for last refers to diluted
    and poorer/watered down wine. Bible also says don’t get drunk on strong
    wine/don’t get drunk with wine for it’s debauchery so people who still get
    drunk with strong wine are also wrong and go to hell. We all must Repent!

    Coveting/jealousy,gambling,gossip,pride,being mean/sharp tongues and
    sleepin around/premarital sex,takin the Lords name in vain are all wrong!
    It doesn’t matter how spiritual people are if they aren’t Biblical they’re lost!
    If you say you love Jesus then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in
    you! It is not enough to believe in Jesus. We all must Repent/follow Him!
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We all must Repent!

  • Hateful and demeaning article. Anyone that can not see through the vitriol in this thinly veiled anti-Catholic piece of schmutz is not very observant. Obviously this won’t get published as it is critical.

  • I am sorry that you feel that way. That is certainly not our intention here. And yes, we’ll keep your comment up. May I suggest you read it again? In no way was this anti-Catholic or anti-anything.

  • Fair enough, to clarify, JW does not commemorate the Resurrection but instead commemorates the Last Supper. This observance of Nisan 14 – quartodecimanism – was once practiced in the early church but later condemned in favor of Easter Sunday. Certainly the two events and commemorations are related, that’s all I meant by “a form of Easter.”

  • william-I’ve read that verse and we are already headed for hell and
    condemned so that’s why we need to Repent. We’re not to stand in
    judgment like we are God but we are to judge between right/wrong
    and not judge in a hypocritical way. Read 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the
    whole chapters and plus Romans 1:18-32 also Luke 13. God bless.

  • …and Joel and Jonah. Use of ashes in times of mourning one’s shortcomings and undertaking repentance is far more venerable a custom than, say, the sacrament of the eucharist. In fact, let me put it to you: does Jesus ever, anywhere, tell anybody they have to go to church, i.e., to perform any religious observance? NO– but he has quite a lot to say about taking long hard looks at our lives, particularly when it comes to our duty to our neighbor. Yet I find those themes strangely absent from a tremendous amount of so-called Christian discourse. I also can’t help noticing in this discussion thread some not-so-subtle judgmental swipes at people whose religious observances vary from one’s own. We really need to leave that stuff behind and confine our judgement time to when we’re taking that long hard look at ourselves – just as Jesus counsels us to do.

  • vitriol? Where?
    I just see lots of interesting information in this article.

    When I was a boy in Catholic school the nuns told me to never wash off the Holy ashes from my forehead and to let everyone know that I was a Catholic. It is also interesting that something which started so long ago is now being practiced in other denominations.

    Perhaps other denominations have figured out that Ash Wednesday makes money and also amounts to free advertising for the local church – so why not?

    No vitriol.
    Just another excellent article by Ms. Winston.

  • Why is it that those who like to condemn practices inspired by the Bible seem to know very little of what is actually in the Bible–like repenting in sackcloth and ashes????? It is clear some people love the Bible–as long as it is kept in a strait-jacket of one’s own devising.

  • The bishops of the early church did this. In fact Pope Victor I (190 CE) wanted to excommunicate the quartodecimians. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 said that Easter was to be on a Sunday, the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon on or after the vernal equinox. “Why” is harder to answer – there was apparently dissatisfaction with the Jewish calendar sometimes placing Nisan 14 before the equinox. On the other hand, the idea that Easter must be tied to the equinox would support the JW idea that Easter as celebrated now has pagan roots.