Sure, It's "Ash Wednesday"---But Why, Exactly, Does My Neighbor Have a Big Ol' Smudge on His Forehead?

Feb 02, 2008

“…what may surprise many…is the fact that Lent is being examined and increasingly embraced by members of…the United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and moderate Baptist traditions.”


In a moment, the smudge. But to begin with: Lent—which begins on February 6 this year, or “Ash Wednesday”—is the season on the Christian calendar marking the severe 40-day testing of Christ in the wilderness. Lent has evolved a great deal since its ancient beginnings—much too much to permit a detailed treatment here. But in short, this season of reflection has traditionally encouraged observers to focus sincerely on the following: fasting, or other forms of self-denial; prayer; reconciliation with God and man—believed to be achieved largely through work in the previous two categories; and charitable efforts. In such key respects, though it is older, Lent is not unlike Ramadan, the Muslim observance which takes place throughout the Islamic month bearing that name.

Although in the U.S. people generally associate Lent with Roman Catholicism, it is a tradition in bodies such as the Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Episcopal churches as well. But what may surprise many is the fact that Lent is being examined and increasingly embraced by members of other parts of the Christian church, such as the United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and moderate Baptist traditions. Discussions on certain online forums suggest that even non-Christians are taking an interest in exploring the discipline, which one Presbyterian minister cheerfully dubbed, “An Excuse to Be Better”.

The 2008 Lenten season, in the Western Christian tradition, goes from next Wednesday all the way to Saturday, March 22, the day before Easter. (In this tradition, all Sundays are excluded from the period.)

And now, for the smudge. Ash Wednesday services feature the ashes of palm leaves that were used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. It is during Ash Wednesday’s special Communion services that a pastor will mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross drawn of burnt palm ash, while speaking the words, “Remember, man (or woman), that thou art dust, and unto dust ye shall return”. A grave pronouncement, yes; but the solemnity of Lent gradually gives way to its happy conclusion, namely the promise of transcendent life through the miracle of Easter.

If your neighbor bears this “Ash Wednesday mark”, you may now have a tad more insight into how and why it got there, and into the deeply personal striving it is intended to symbolize. And who knows? That might just move you to stand, through the coming Lenten season and thereafter, in quiet, growing solidarity with the folks next door.


Links to more information on…

The United Methodist Church and Lent:

Historically Black Methodist churches and Lent:

Presbyterian Church (USA) and Lent:

Moderate Baptist churches and Lent: