What Is Ash Wednesday? Is That Schmutz On Everyone’s Forehead?

If you notice people walking around with smudges on their forehead today, don't be alarmed: It's Ash Wednesday. (It's definitely not schmutz, so please don't try to rub it off of anyone.)

A somber day on the Christian liturgical calendar, it marks the start of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians go to church and part of the service is to get blessed with, you guessed it, ashes. In this case, blessing means the priest applies ashes to your forehead. As with lots of Christian ritual, it's primarily a Roman Catholic thing, and many wear the mark throughout the day.

The ashes are made from burnt palm leaves from the prior year’s Palm Sunday — the Sunday before Easter. The ashes are then blessed and the priest applies them during Wednesday Mass. The ashes are typically drawn in the shape of a cross on the forehead by a priest.

Catholics welcome Lent with Ash Wednesday church services

Although, as you can see from ashes on various famous Catholics, “cross” is open to interpretation.

7 fast facts about Lent

Bill Donaghy, who teaches at the Theology of the Body Institute in Pennsylvania explains the consiberable variation in ash application with humorous taxonomy of crosses chart, “A Catholic Guide to Ashes, Extended Edition.” He also told us how they get the ashes to stick: it’s a paste made from holy water. 

Over a billion Catholics worldwide attend Mass on Ash Wednesday to be blessed with ashes in preparation for Lent.

Over a billion Catholics worldwide attend Mass on Ash Wednesday to be blessed with ashes in preparation for Lent.

(Richard Drew/AP)

Even though keeping the ashes on throughout the day isn’t required, it is encouraged, Donaghy said. “They're a sign of Lent beginning and a time for prayer and conversion,” he explains. “They're a nice conversation starter too! ‘Uh, you have something on your forehead...’ ‘Funny you should mention it!’”

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