For many active Christians, Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to repent, reflect and welcome the season of Lent. For non-Christians or lapsed believers, it inspires inquisitive looks at people with smudged foreheads.
"People might have looked confused at first, but they usually figured it out," said the Rev. Sarah Ginolfi, parish missioner at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, about the Ash Wednesdays of her childhood.
The small, black crosses that appear on people's foreheads are Ash Wednesday's most visible and memorable feature. They're made of ash and easily confused for dirt or black marker.
Although confusion about them can lead to meaningful conversations, Christians who've studied Ash Wednesday's significance said the imposition of the ashes ritual can also detract from the true themes of the day, which falls on Feb. 10 this year.
"We don't take ashes on because we want to be marked as holy. We want to remind one another that we are a community of sinners," said Rose Berger, senior associate editor of Sojourners magazine. "We want to remind ourselves how to return to our true calling."
Ashes to ashes
An Ash Wednesday worship service is generally a solemn affair, focused on the confession of sins, the need for God's forgiveness and the inevitability of death.
In the Catholic Church, the ritual dates back to around the 11th century, but its roots are in the very earliest days of the church, said Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History Magazine.
"By the 11th century, Christians understood that everyone was supposed to mark the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service," she said. But it took centuries for the details of this service to take shape.
The imposition of ashes on participants' foreheads and meditations on God's grace, two of the main components of Ash Wednesday celebrations, re-create steps taken by early believers who wanted to join the Christian community, as well as the actions required from members who needed to repent for misbehavior.
The troublemakers, or penitents, as they were formally known, had to wear ashes on their heads and sit separately from other Christians during worship services until they had made up for their misdeeds. The smudged faces were inspired by a variety of Bible verses referencing ashes, such as Daniel 9:3, which reads: "I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes."
People seeking baptism into the community also sat separately, receiving three years of training before entering a final 40 days of prayer and fasting during Lent. They were then baptized during Easter weekend.
"Eventually, somebody got the idea that it would benefit everyone to fast, pray and prepare themselves for Easter," and Ash Wednesday became the jumping-off point, Tait said, noting that the penitents' ashes were also incorporated into this ritual to signify that every Christian benefited from repentance.
After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Catholics were the only Christians to participate in Ash Wednesday rituals. Ditching the ashes was one way newly formed denominations sought to separate themselves from the tradition they left behind, Tait said.
However, when Catholic leaders began re-examining liturgical traditions in the 1960s, they inspired Methodist, Presbyterian and other Protestant leaders to do the same.
"They began slowly figuring out which things made sense within their denominations," Berger said.
Ash Wednesday was reborn as a broadly Christian phenomenon.
As a child, Berger loved the drama of Ash Wednesday services. She reveled in the priest's physical act of drawing a cross of ashes on each participant's forehead.
But as she grew up, her focus turned inward. She saw value in reflecting on her own and her community's shortcomings, especially when the call to reflect comes with a promise of God's forgiveness.
Ash Wednesday "keeps us focused on becoming better human beings," she said.
Similarly, Tait, who is Episcopalian, described Ash Wednesday as an opportunity to remember that Christians need Jesus' help to do better.
"We need forgiveness and grace, and Lent is about opening up your life to allow that to happen," she said.
Ash Wednesday is also about acknowledging that there's an expiration date on each person's ability to reflect and repent. When marking people's foreheads, faith leaders repeat some version of "You are dust and to dust you shall return," a scripture lesson offered at many funeral services.
"Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our 'creatureliness,' which includes death," Berger said, noting that it can inspire believers to reprioritize their daily lives.
Although people often associate Ash Wednesday — and Lent as a whole — with individual discipline, it also holds communal implications, Berger said.
She described the holiday as a chance for a church or Christian organization to analyze where the community has fallen short and to acknowledge how its missteps have affected even outsiders.
"Sins are not just confined to the body of Christ; when we fail to reflect Christ's mission in the world, it impacts other people," Berger said, offering the example of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests.
Ginolfi said Ash Wednesday will be the starting point for a project she's leading at her church for congregants who want to recommit to serving the Indianapolis community.
"We'll go through workshops on prayer and worship, as well as volunteer at a few community programs," she said. "Lent is often when adults are willing to go the extra mile" to live out their spiritual beliefs.
At Sojourners, Berger helps organize an Ash Wednesday service for staff members, who come from a variety of Christian backgrounds. She hopes it reaffirms the importance of working together to build a more just and authentic world.
"It's easy for Lent to come and go without people recognizing that it's happening," she said. "By celebrating Ash Wednesday, we're reminding ourselves that we're a Christian community before anything else and that life is fleeting."
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