Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Holy Days: Ash Wednesday

What is Ash Wednesday, and why is it celebrated with an ash cross on people's foreheads?


You may have seen them before, people walking around with a smudge of gray or black ashes on their foreheads and wondered what was up? Rest assured, it’s a not a fashion statement and it’s not because they forgot to wash their face that morning. Forty-six days before Easter (or 40 days not including Sundays), many Christians start preparing for that festival with the observance of the season of Lent. During Lent, Christians partake in a fasting ritual during which they often give up eating meat, dairy, sweets and other foods while participating in certain activities like prayer, Scripture reading, self-examination and repentance.


The season is kicked off with Ash Wednesday, the holy day when practicing Christians attend church services where as part of the service, they will have the sign of the cross smudged onto their forehead in ash.


The ash symbolizes the dust from which God created humans. When applied, a priest reminds practitioners, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The priest may also recite, "Repent and believe in the Gospel," while applying the ash.


Ash is applied during the Communion service and all attendees are welcome to receive the symbol, whether practicing Christians or not. The ashes — made from blessed palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service — also represent the grief and mourning one feels for their sins and their distance from God.


While Ash Wednesday can be traced back to the eighth century, the act of applying ash to the forehead is derived from the Biblical Ninevites, who repented and found salvation from evil and sin while in sackcloth and ashes. Like the Ninevites, modern Christians are made aware of their sins before God and their human mortality during Ash Wednesday