On Wednesday, you probably saw a few people with ash marks on their foreheads. You probably asked them what it meant, and they probably gave a quick answer - "Ash Wednesday." If you had the courage and time to ask about its significance, history, and theological implication, you probably may have gotten a blank stare.
Also with Ash Wednesday, there's two more words you will be hearing a lot - Fat Tuesday and Lent. I'll do my best to explain these terms, since the Lent practices have evolved over the centuries.
A Long Time Ago...
No one knows exactly when the ritual of Lent came along (it is not in the Bible), but Church Historians agree it came within the first four hundred years after Jesus' death and resurrection.
There were many people who wanted to become followers of Jesus, and many planned to make their public declaration (baptism) on Easter. This seems to be fitting, since baptism was practiced as going under water (symbolically, dying to your old self) and coming out of the water (symbolically, resurrecting to your new self). Easter was the day of Christ's resurrection. What better day to get baptized, right?
As a way to prepare for their baptism day, the church required these people to give something up (typically something they enjoyed) for 40 days (although some historians argue that the original requirement was only a couple days), so that there would be even more enjoyment and celebration when they were able to partake in it on Easter. This period of time is called lent, which is actually 47-48 days; more on that later. According to earliest records, these rituals were taken very seriously - some were restricted to eat only once a day, and when they were finally able to have a meal, it could not include any proteins.
Why 48 Days?
The fast was designated by the significance of the number forty in the Bible. As seen in the biblical examples of the 40-day flood, 40-year wandering, 40-day fast of Christ, etc., forty seems to signify challenge and change in the Bible. Since the original intent of lent was to develop discipline amongst the soon-to-be-Christians, the early church thought this was a great amount of days for this ritual.
There were some theologians who had issues with this practice. Why do we have to suffer on a Sunday, the Lord's Day? The Christians considered Sunday's to be a special day - the day Jesus rose from the dead. It was supposed to be a day of celebration (which is why we celebrate our sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday). How can we celebrate when we cannot eat?
For this reason, people were allowed to break their fast on Sundays, only to get back to abstaining from meat (and eating only once a day) on Monday. Therefore, if you pull out your calendar and count back 40 days from Easter skipping every Sunday, you should land on a Wednesday. This day will be the first day of your "40-day" fast. This day is called Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday and Fat Tuesday
If Ash Wednesday is the start of your fast, then some felt the need to indulge in whatever they were going to miss. Often, this was meat. So, many people will eat as much meat as they can on Tuesday, thus the title. In modern days, Fat Tuesday is also associated with Mardi Gras, where people indulge in their pleasures. By the way, the word "carnival" came from such practices. "Carni" means meat, and "vale" means farewell. I think this originally meant "farewell to our flesh" while most people tend to understand this as "farewell meat, so let's enjoy it as much as we can, while we can!"
So, why do we use ashes? This has a long history, dating back to the Old Testament. Legend says that this tradition came from families using wood-fires to keep warm inside the house. With much in-house fires, managing the ashes became a full time chore. Most were able to clean their homes before guests came, but when you were facing troubling days, you wouldn't have the time to clean the ashes off your face.
Thus, the imagery of ashes on faces became synonymous with sadness and repentance (some believed sadness comes with a lesson from God, which usually led to repenting of your sins).
The early church used this imagery of repentance with lent. This is why people have ashes on their heads or has a symbol of the cross written with ashes.
Interesting fact: In most churches, the ashes are made from the palm branches they used in their Palm Sunday service from the prior year.
Today, lent is not only for those who are considering becoming Christians. As a matter of fact, I don't know of anyone who practices this ritual who isn't already Christian. When I ask Christian college students about why they partake in lent, they say, "Everytime I crave (fill in the blank), it becomes a reminder to me to remember Jesus' sacrifice on the cross." While this wasn't the original intent, it is certainly honorable.
In 2016, the most given-up item for lent is school. I think this completely misses the reasoning behind the ritual. In second place is chocolate, then social media and swearing. Very creative!
Are you going to participate in lent this year? If so, what are you planning on giving up?