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What is Ash Wednesday?

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Indonesian Catholics Celebrate Ash Wednesday
Robertus Pudyanto / Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ash Wednesday is, simply put, the beginning of Lent. It is a day of fasting that sets off the 40 days prior to Easter. But why is it an important day and what's with the smudge of ash on the forehead?

Ash Wednesday Starts the Easter Season

Ash Wednesday begins the Easter season by kicking off Lent. Lent is the 40 days of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter. Just as the date of Easter varies from year to year, so does Ash Wednesday, most often falling in February or March. Ash Wednesday is most often celebrated by Catholics, and it is not consider a day of obligation for them.

What Do People Do on Ash Wednesday?

On Ash Wednesday Christians go to church to receive ash on their foreheads. It is often a day of fasting. The receiving of ashes has a long tradition in the Church. In the past, Christians who had committed grave sins performed their penance in public, so on Ash Wednesday the Bishops would bless them by sprinkling ashes over them. Catholics would recite the Seven Penitential Psalms, and they would not enter the church until they had earned their reconciliation after 40 days penance and absolution. However, not all Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday. Actually it is mainly celebrated by Catholics as well as Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans.

What's with the Ashes?

What most people notice on Ash Wednesday is that an awful lot of Christians are running around with ashes smudged on their foreheads. The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration from the year prior. They are christened with Holy Water and are scented by incense. They are a symbol of penance and contrition, which is why believers are told "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return" when he/she receives the ashes. While throughout the day the ashes may turn into more of a smudge, they are actually applied to the forehead as the sign of the cross.

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