Utah Christians see a wide variety of meaning in Ash Wednesday, which will be observed Feb. 8 by thousands of Christian churches worldwide.
The day begins the 40-day Lent season leading to Easter, though it has its origins in Old Testament traditions.In those early times, ashes were a sign of mortality and one's lowliness and the need of conversion to God, a custom that carried over into Christianity. Early Christians saw the use of ashes as a sign of one's individual repentance for sin. They gradually came to be used as one's public penance for sins.
In about the 10th century, the Christian church made universal the practice of receiving ashes to begin Lent.
While some churches, such as Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopalian, place more emphasis on Ash Wednesday than do others, the day is still significant for other religious groups.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and other Christians will gather to publicly receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads. The mark is made from the ashes of last year's burnt palms.
"It's the season to renew our commitment to God in preparation for commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. It's a time to look at ourselves in positive ways so we can grow spiritually," said Sister Margaret Stechschulte, director of communication media, Salt Lake Catholic Diocese.
The Rev. Carol West of Mount Tabor Lutheran Church said the sign of the cross on people's foreheads, "reminds them of their humanity, their sinfulness."
The Rev. Robert R. Servatius of the Blessed Sacrament Church, Sandy, sees the use of ashes in a two-fold way.
"One is our mortality, expressed in one of the two formulas that may be used" and spoken when ashes are placed on the forehead. The other, he said, is an alternative that can be used to "express conversion and reconciliation to God" in the phrase: `Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."'
The receiving of ashes, the Rev. Servatius said, "can make one aware of our dependence on God and our need to be constantly in conversion."
To Episcopalians, the significance of Ash Wednesday lies in its ties to repentance and assurance of God's forgiveness, according to Dean William Maxwell of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.
He said Lent "was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the church."
The Rev. Tom DeMan, of the Order of Preachers and pastor at the Newman Center at the University of Utah, said Ash Wednesday "forces a person to deal with failure in their lives."
He said some people think Ash Wednesday is a holy day of obligation, when Catholics are required to attend church. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day. It is a special day and Catholics are encouraged to attend services, but it is not a requirement, he said.
The Rev. Donald H. Baird, of the First Presbyterian Church, said Presbyterians and other Protestants have "not made a special observance of Ash Wednesday for fear it would be an end of itself."
He stressed the importance of building a relationship with God throughout the year and not "just 40 days before Easter.'
Brendan Morley, 6, a first grader at Blessed Sacrament Church School, said that when Father Bob (the Rev. Servatius) "puts ashes on my forehead it means special things to me." Classmate Brooke Norton, 6, said she looks forward to the day "because I love Jesus."