On February 25th of 2009 you may notice coworkers or friends walking around with a dark smudge on their foreheads. You may be tempted to let them know so that they can clean it off. Why would they want to have a dirty forehead? When you mention this to them, they may smile and thank you and then go on their way without wiping their head clean. Why? What is so special about this day?
Ash Wednesday falls on February 25th this year. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of lent. This day is celebrated in Western religions, specifically the Catholic religion. Some other religions celebrate Ash Wednesday as well, but the Catholic religion is one of the only ones to do so with the marking of the forehead with a cross of ash. So, why ash? And why the forehead? And why the heck Wednesday instead of Sunday?
In the Catholic religion, lent is the 40 day period of time before Easter. Lent is a time of fasting and prayer. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and marks the beginning of this holy period of time. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are blessed, mixed with holy oil and imposed upon the forehead in the sign of a cross. The ashes are made by burning the palm branches that were blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday.
The ashes serve two purposes. First, they remind the faithful of their mortality and humanity. They remind us that we are here for a short time and will then become ashes and dust. Secondly, the ashes are a symbol of repentance, sorrow and humility. They show our acceptance and regret for our sins and our sorrow for our lacks. By marking the forehead, we are showing that we own the sins and sorrow and that we repent of them. This act is a public penitence.
Fasting is another major component of Ash Wednesday. Fasting, in the Catholic faith, consists of only eating one full meal during the day. No snacking is allowed and any other meal eaten must be small. Adults are required to fast and are also required to abstain from the eating of meat.
In the past, ashes were sprinkled upon men and the foreheads were only marked upon women. This has changed so that the forehead is now marked on all. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Catholic faithful are not require to attend mass or receive the imposition of the ashes buta re encouraged to do so. Ash Wednesday is one of the largest and most well attended of holy days in the Catholic church. Many people who do not attend church on any other day will still go to have their ashes imposed upon them and to show their penitence.
This February 25th, on Ash Wednesday, if you see a friend or coworker with a smudge upon their head, remember that it is likely to be a public show of their faith and not just dirt. The prayers and scripture that are shared on Ash Wednesday are some of the most important and beautiful in the Catholic faith, in my opinion. You could choose this day to visit a local church and see what this day is all about. The imposition of ashes is not limited to those of the Catholic faith, unlike many other mysteries of the church. All are welcome to share this day.