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Ash Wednesday is the day Lent begins. It occurs forty days before Good Friday and originated in the A.D. 900s. Ash Wednesday is actually its colloquial name. Its official name is the Day of Ashes. It is called Ash Wednesday because, being forty days before Good Friday, it always falls on a Wednesday and it is called Ash Wednesday because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.
In the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person’s ownership. By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross. This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
Ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one’s head. They also symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he says, “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
The ashes are made by burning palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, they are then blessed by a priest — blessed ashes having been used in God’s rituals since the time of Moses (Numbers 19:9-10, 17).