What Is #Ashtag? Catholics Snap Ash Wednesday Selfies Around the World

Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday during a mass at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, Illinois, on March 1, 2017. Ash Wednesday, which occurs 46 days before Easter, marks the first day of Lent and the beginning of a fast for many Christian religions. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The growing presence of social media and hashtags in recent years has given the ages-old Catholic holiday Ash Wednesday a new life: the #Ashtag.

#Ashtag is the hashtag people use when they post selfies of themselves with a black mark on their foreheads in observance of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a season of fasting and prayer.

The ashes are a symbol for Catholics to remember, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return," as the Bible's book of Genesis in verse 3:19 states.

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As #Ashtag has gained traction, however, a debate has followed as to whether broadcasting the solemn occasion on social media is appropriate.

Our clergy are getting ready. #ashtag #ashestogo #ashwednesday pic.twitter.com/1RaSRSYGC3

— Texas Bishop (@TexasBishop) February 13, 2018

When the trend was just starting to take off a few years ago, Jesuit Father James Martin said that each person could decide if it was right to engage in.

"As with most things in life, you need a sense of moderation and only a person's conscience can tell them why they're posting these things," Martin said at the time.

Greg Hillis, an associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Kentucky, in 2015 tweeted, "I've racked my brain trying to justify, theologically or otherwise, #ashtag & public displays of ashes. I've got nothing."

Last year, the Catholic News Service laid out the pros and cons of #Ashtag. On the upside, sharing ash selfies spreads the significance of the day to a broad audience and is a modern form of evangelizing—and even priests take part. On the downside, the meaning of Ash Wednesday can be drowned in happy posts.

Roman Catholic churches use Ash Wednesday, which always falls 46 days before Easter, to prepare church members to appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ more through fasting, prayer, self-examination, repentance and self-denial. Some people even give up social media for Lent.