If you notice anyone in the street or at the supermarket today with a black cross on their forehead, or maybe just a black smudge, then the chances are that they are marking Ash Wednesday, an important Christian day of prayer and fasting.
1. For 2022, Pope Francis and other Christian leaders have urged believers and other people of goodwill to make this Ash Wednesday a day of fasting and prayer for peace for the people of Ukraine.
2. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Christian season of Lent, the weeks that lead up to Easter Sunday, the feast that celebrates Christ rising from the day, or the Resurrection. Before Easter comes Holy Week, which marks the time leading up to Christ’s death on the cross — the crucifixion — that was followed by his Resurrection three days later.
3. Ash Wednesday’s certainly a very solemn day. The crosses and black smudges are ash — hence the name — and the ash is linked to death. This is not just Christians thinking about Christ’s death but also thinking about their own death, and the need to keep turning towards God and away from sin.
4. At an Ash Wednesday service, each member of the congregation processes to the altar where a priest will dip his thumb into the ashes and then marks each person’s forehead with the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
5. The ashes used in the Ash Wednesday ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are blessed and sprinkled with holy water and infused with incense.
6. The importance of this time of extra prayer, and turning to God is linked to the story of Christ, found in the Gospels, retreating into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days and nights and resisting the temptations of Satan.
7. Those shoppers in the supermarket you might have noticed with black ash on their foreheads won’t be buying treats, and probably not meat. Christians are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday — the only other obligatory fast is Good Friday, which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion. Fish is traditional on fasting days. Many Christians then opt for more fasting and abstinence through Lent plus extra prayer and almsgiving, all seen as ways to get closer to God and focus more on others. They might read devotional books too.
8. In the Roman Catholic Church, a popular act of piety during Lent is the service called Stations of the Cross, where people follow images of Christ’s journey to his crucifixion. It was first created in the Middle Ages for those who could not travel on pilgrimage to follow the way of the Cross in Jerusalem.
9. It’s not on the same Wednesday every year because Easter is a movable feast, based on the date of Passover, which is set according to the movements of the moon. The word Lent, derived from Anglo-Saxon, originally meant no more than the spring season. In Latin it was called quadragesima — from which come the Italian quaresima and Spanish cuaresma — literally “40 days”. The English word quarantine comes from the same root.
10. Ash Wednesday is the first long poem that T. S. Eliot wrote after his conversion in 1927 from Unitarianism to Anglicanism. He writes that Ash Wednesday is the start of the season when Christians turn towards God.