Learning the meaning behind Ash Wednesday

Many Catholics and some Protestants are celebrating Ash Wednesday, the first day of the six-week penitential season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday occurs on a varying date, either in February or March, depending on when Easter takes place – April 8 this year.

Those who take part in this solemn day attend services during which a pastor will mark their foreheads with ash. The pastor also will often tell the worshipper to "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," according to Beliefnet .

The ashes come from burned palm leaves from the previous year and are blessed by a member of the clergy. Why? Throughout Christian history ashes have been viewed as a mark of humility and sacrifice for the faithful who wear them.

Even in Old Testament times, reported American Catholic , ashes were symbolic of mourning and repentance.

The prophet Jeremiah called for repentance: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jeremiah 6:26).

In Daniel 9:3, the prophet shared that he "… turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes."

Fasting is common on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics and some Protestant denominations also abstain from eating meat on all Fridays during Lent.

"What I value most about Ash Wednesday worship services is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness," wrote blogger Mark Roberts for Beliefnet .

"In a world that often expects us to be perfect, on Ash Wednesday we freely confess our imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are.

"We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior."

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