What Is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It's a day of penitence to clean the soul before the Lent fast.
Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin.
Ash Wednesday services
The service draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting.
The mark of ashes
In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality.
The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.
The modern practice in Roman Catholic churches nowadays is for the priest to dip his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead.
Keeping the mark
At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world.
At other churches the service ends with the ashes being washed off as a sign that the participants have been cleansed of their sins.
Where the ashes come from
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday.