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Ash is an important symbol of Ash Wednesday in many Christian churches.

 

Ash Wednesday

Many Christian Americans mark Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. It follows Shrove Tuesday, which features Mardi Gras celebrations.

 

What do people do?

Christians in the United States attend special Ash Wednesday church services. This includes students who attend Catholic and other church schools. Clergy usually place blessed ashes in form of the cross on individuals’ foreheads to remind them of mortality, sorrow for sins, change, and forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lenten discipline for observant Christians. It is traditionally a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for receiving or reaffirming baptism at Easter. For some Christians, Lent is a time to think about one’s life choices and mortality, as well as reflect on life directions. It serves as a wakeup call for some Christians. There are also those who choose this time of the year to donate to charities or take part in charity events as a way to get close to God.

Public life

Ash Wednesday is a public holiday in places such as the Cayman Islands, French Guiana, and Jamaica. It is a holiday for bank and/or government workers, as well as some businesses, in places such as Guadeloupe and Panama. It is a regional holiday in some areas in Cape Verde and Brazil. It is not a national public holiday in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States but local observances may be held.

Background

The name “Ash Wednesday” is derived from the custom of marking foreheads of the faithful with blessed ashes as a sign of penitence and humility. The Lent season has been a time for self-examination and penitence prior to Easter for many centuries. The day also comes from the Saxon lengten-tide, referring to the days and the coming of spring in the northern hemisphere.

This 40-day period of abstinence recalls the fasts of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, all of which lasted for 40 days according to the Christian scripture. It originally began in the western church on a Sunday. However, Pope Gregory I moved the beginning of Lent four days ahead in the late sixth century because Sundays were feast days.

Symbols

The ashes that priests use on Ash Wednesday usually come from the remains of burned palms that were blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. They symbolize death, mortality and sorrow for sin. The marking of ashes on foreheads in form of a cross also symbolizes that sins are forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 

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