The meaning of the cross of ashes on Ash Wednesday

For Christians, the date marks the start of a period of reflection and repentance that lasts until Easter.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 22 Feb 2023, 11:43 GMT
A woman with a cross of ashes on her forehead attends a traditional Ash Wednesday service ...
A woman with a cross of ashes on her forehead attends a traditional Ash Wednesday service at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Jose, Costa Rica. The Christian holiday marks the start of Lent, a 40-day period of penance that culminates on Easter.
Photograph by Juan Carlos Ulate, Reuters

Wondering why a small dusty cross anoints the foreheads of Christians once a year? They're celebrating Ash Wednesday, which for many also marks the start of Lent, a 40-day period of penance and reflection leading up to Easter. Here's what you need to know about a date marked by ash crosses and fasting.

When is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday always falls on the Wednesday six and a half weeks before Easter, which Christians around the world believe is the day that Jesus Christ was resurrected. (Sundays are not counted in the 40-day period of Lent.) In 2023, Ash Wednesday takes place on February 22.

Eastern and Western churches use different days to mark the start of Lent, however. In the west, Ash Wednesday opens the holiday. In Eastern Orthodox churches, Lent begins on the Monday seven weeks before Easter and Ash Wednesday is not observed. (Why some people celebrate Christmas in January.)

Catholic devotees pray on Ash Wednesday at a church in Manila on March 6, 2019.
Photograph by Ted Aljibe, AFP, Getty

What is Ash Wednesday?

The origins of Lent trace to 325 CE, when it was more commonly used as a preparation phase for baptisms. The holiday's length is an homage to Jesus Christ’s 40-day fast as he travelled through the wilderness after being baptised and before he began his ministry. This period is considered by Christians to be God's test of Jesus's spirituality and ability to withstand temptation.

Today, Christians use the holiday both to repent and reflect. The ash cross marking observers’ foreheads is meant to represent mortality and penance for their sins. It is applied by a priest during a morning mass, often along with a small blessing: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Many choose to keep it on all day. 

The ash itself is made from the burned palm leaves used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday services, which commemorate Jesus's arrival to Jerusalem a week before he was crucified and resurrected. It’s believed that residents welcomed him by waving palm fronds.

Fasting and Lenten resolutions

Ash Wednesday sets the tone for Lent, which is considered a time for self-improvement. Originally, Christians observing Lent were allowed only one meal a day and were forbidden from eating meat or fish during the entire period. This tradition was relaxed by Roman Catholics around World War II. 

While some still abide by a strict version of the fast on Fridays during Lent, many instead choose to give up indulgences like alcohol and social media. 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on February 26, 2020. It has been updated.


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