Ash Wednesday: Why Christians Put Ashes on Their Forehead

Ash Wednesday, the holy day of prayer and fasting where Christians celebrate the first day of Lent, falls on February 22 this year.

The holy day—officially known as the Day of Ashes—occurs 46 days before Easter. On this day it is common to see Christians, especially Catholics, with smudges of ashes on their foreheads.

Telford Bray, a resident priest in Cape Town, South Africa, told Newsweek: "Lent is a time for Christians to prepare by fasting and penance and works of mercy, the Kerygma, the good news of the saving grace of God. Through this time 40 days we remember his promise to his chosen people as he led them from the land of their captivity into the freedom of the promised land."

The Kerygma is the preaching or proclamation of the Christian gospel.

"For us it's our journey of what keeps us captive our failings, weaknesses, and sin of disobedience to God's love which we celebrate in the Paschal mystery over the Triduum," he added.

The six-week Lent period culminates on Maundy Thursday for Catholics and Holy Saturday for most other Christian denominations. During Lent, many Christians fast, meaning that they have only one full meal a day. Catholics specifically are not supposed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday, as well as every Friday during Lent.

The Paschal Triduum is the three days of Easter that start with the celebration of the Last Supper, the washing of the feet then the passion account of the betrayal the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

"We end with the great celebration of the Easter Vigil Christ's victory over death on Easter morning. The ashes which are sprinkled over our heads at the beginning of this journey are an outward sign of an inward journey we freely undertake to celebrate these events and our willingness and openness to change. To be reconciled with God, with our personal history and with each other. Peace."

The ashes represent both death and repentance for sins. It also symbolizes grief of the death of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe died for their sins, before resurrecting three days later at Easter.

Often, the ashes are in a cross shape, to represent the crucifixion of Christ.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," a priest may say when applying the ash. The priest might also say "Repent and believe in the gospel."

The worshipper is not required to wear the ash on their head for the rest of the day, but many choose to do so.

Ash Wednesday Composite
In this combination image, A churchgoer is administered ashes by Father Phillip Landry in St. Louis Cathedral during the Ash Wednesday prayer and imposition of ashes on February 17, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana Getty