The Most Rev. John G. Vlasny, the Archbishop of Portland, his forehead smudged with ashes, performs the Ash Wednesday ceremony on parishioners in Portland (Feb. 8, 2002). Photo by Michael Lloyd

The Most Rev. John G. Vlasny, archbishop of Portland, his forehead smudged with ashes, performs the Ash Wednesday ceremony on parishioners in Portland (Feb. 8, 2002).
Photo by Michael Lloyd

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(RNS) This Wednesday (March 5) marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. For Christians, Lent is a 40-day season of fasting, reflection and penance culminating  in Holy Week and the Easter Sunday commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection.

The Rev. Arne Panula, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., said his experience is that more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than any other holiday, including Christmas and Easter.

Here are a few basics on the Ash Wednesday tradition:

When was the first Ash Wednesday celebrated?

Early Christians celebrated the first Ash Wednesday sometime around the Early Middle Ages, Panula said. Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a liturgy specialist at Catholic University, said the practice started in the 10th century and became an official liturgy in the 13th century.

Is Ash Wednesday a Roman Catholic observance?

Catholics are not the only group observing Ash Wednesday. Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists and other liturgical Protestants partake in receiving ashes. Historically, the practice has not been common among evangelicals.

Panula said Muslims, Jews and even people who aren’t religious can honor the tradition as a reminder of man’s shortcomings. “People recognize that it is a symbol of our mortality,” he said. “It gives us a profound sense that we are mortal, and Ash Wednesday is a reminder of that.”

In a typical Ash Wednesday service, a minister recites Genesis 3:19 — “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” — while applying the ashes in the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead.

Does the service have to be performed in a church?

No. While Catholics almost always receive the ashes inside a church, people in other religious traditions now celebrate the ritual without necessarily having to step foot inside a church. Some churches offer “ashes to go,” which gives busy participants the option of receiving ashes on a street corner, at a train station or in some other public venue. A state-by-state list of churches in the U.S. that administer on-the-go ashes can be found at A pastor, deacon or lay person can administer the ashes. For Catholics, Ash Wednesday rites usually (but not always) consist of Mass.

Where do the ashes come from?

Typically, the ashes that are placed on the forehead of the individual come from branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday services, which falls one week before Easter and commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The palms themselves don’t necessarily come from the Holy Land, but instead from various religious suppliers around the country.

What do the ashes on the forehead represent?

The ashes are a profound symbolism for observers. Ash Wednesday is not an official “holy day of obligation” for Catholics, but it is a deeply ingrained tradition, even for people who may not be particularly observant. The ashes — a traditional sign of mourning and repentance — are meant to remind people that life is short.

“It is a time for Christians to carry the cross,” Panula said. “The observance is a symbol of our Lord emblazoned on the forehead of Christians.”



  1. Earold Gunter

    I think instead of ash crosses on only one day of the year, those that practice this tradition of publicly displaying the instrument of their saviors torturous death should opt instead to have a cross tattooed on their foreheads. Not only would this be a show of real commitment to their belief, it would make it easier for non-believers to quickly identify them. Also the more zealous among them could take artistic liberty and jazz up their tattoo’s with blood and gore dripping off of it to more boldly make that “I celebrate human sacrifice” statement better to everyone they encounter.

    Religion is poison!

    • I thinks the Coptic Christians have already had this practice centuries ago, of getting a tattoo on their forehead of a cross.

      Atheism is poison!

  2. Angela Montgomery

    I see the ashes are a reminder that your life is short. But in knowing that your life is short, what are you doing to make it into the kindgom of God.

  3. Angela Montgomery

    After done all the ash stuff and went through the 40 days of fasting, etc. have you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior. Some things are just an outward show and the life has no change at all. Jesus is the way, the only way. John 3:16


      yeah my dear Angela Jesus is always the only path to heaven but humanbeings natually are absentminded that is why all this isdone to put them back to christ

  4. I am a Christian Catholic born again by baptism into the Church Jesus Christ began upon Peter. I know by history (there’s only one church that in unity that goes all the way back to Jesus), and by Scripture that the Catholic Church is the Church of the Bible. All other church’s were started by men.

    Did Jesus say upon this rock Peter I will start my Church in the 20th century? No he did not. Think about it. Live Jesus!


      Thank you very much mr J Daceiy for your understanding many people are born to families that are protestant thet learn many historical religious teachings but they dont come to the point that the Catholic church was left by the same JESUS whom they believe in

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Please Mr.J Darcey,you’re just the typical simple-minded catholic taken in by the bogus”interpretation”of Matthew 16:17-19. If catholic doctrine is to be believed,we find ourselves faced with an unresolveable contradiction,because Almighty God Himself declares in too many places that He Himself is THE ROCK.(In fact,in 2nd Sameul 23:3 He is specifically called The Rock of Israel).Now,I’m no scholar per se,but I cannot imagine The God of Israel,Jesus,relegating His title to a mere human being;from my perspective that makes your church’s attempt to designate Peter as that”rock”bogus,no matter how long its been interpretated as such.Think about it,J Darcey; free your mind in Christ and stop being an institutional syncophant and a slave to bogus”traditions”!!

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