Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the Lenten season. Lent begins 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays. As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season. Many churches hold services on Ash Wednesday early in the morning, at noon, and in the evening.

Not all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. Some of those who observe Ash Wednesday are: Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics.

The ashes are a symbol of repentance. The use of ashes on the first day of Lent comes from a ceremony from bygone ages. Christians who had committed serious offenses performed public penance. The penitent powdered himself with ashes as a way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. This practice was partially based on the ancient example of someone expressing repentance as found in Job 42: 3-6. Job says to God: “I have heard of you with the ear of the ear, but now my eye sees you. The other eye wanders of its own accord. Therefore I loathe and repent to dust and ashes” (KJV).

The ashes are traditionally made by burning the palms used in the celebration of Palm Sunday the previous year. The ashes are mixed with holy water and oil. Used oil can be one of the sacred oils used to anoint those who are about to be baptized. This paste is used by the minister presiding over the service to make the sign of the cross, first on his own forehead and then on that of the parishioners. The minister recites the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19) or “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). The worshiper traditionally holds the cross. on the forehead until it disappears.

A couple of interesting historical notes related to Ash Wednesday are:

(1) The theaters of Victorian England refrained from putting on costumed shows on Ash Wednesday and therefore offered other forms of entertainment;

(2) Both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom designated Ash Wednesday as a National No Smoking Day. The reason was that quitting smoking is related to giving up luxury during Lent. (National No Smoking Day in the UK is now set for the second Wednesday in March.)

While the Ash Wednesday service is not a sacrament, it serves as a reminder that God is merciful and merciful to those who invoke him with repentant hearts. His mercy is of the utmost importance during the season of Lent and the church calls each of us to seek that mercy throughout the entire season of Lent with reflection, prayer and penance.

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