“Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return!”
If there ever is a day of the year when you can spot Christians at a glance, Ash Wednesday is it. It is the one time when Anglicans, Catholics and other denominations literally wear their faith on their foreheads. In fact, Eucharists on Ash Wednesday are better attended than most other holy days, except Christmas.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. The ashes we receive on our forehead in the shape of a cross serve as an outward sign of our sinfulness and need for penance. The ashes also symbolize our mortality, a reminder that one day we will die and our bodies will return to dust. Hence the traditional words, “Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return.”
The tradition of receiving ashes has its origins in the Old Testament, where sinners performed acts of public penance. It has been a required practice in the Church since before 10th Century and it is prescribed that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the previous year’s palm branches.
Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting and abstinence. According to ancient practice, Christians older than the age of 14 are supposed to abstain from meat. In addition, those between the ages of 18 and 59, not including pregnant mothers or those who are sick, should eat only one full meal. It is suggested that smaller amounts of food may be eaten in the morning and either at lunchtime or dinner, depending on when you plan to eat your full meal.