Whilst many are wrapped up in Valentine’s Day today, it should be remembered that it is also Ash Wednesday and the start of an important time of the year for many. Ash Wednesday is an important date on the Christian calendar as it marks the start of Lent (or the Lenten season if you wish to be a bit more formal). For 40 days from here on in, Christians go through a period of fasting which is to remember the same amount of time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. In practice, most just give up chocolate or pies or something rather than trying to fast properly, but it is at least a nod to the sacrifice made by the son of God.
Ash Wednesday gets its name from the tradition of marking the shape of a cross on the forehead of those attending church services. The ashes are often made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The words ‘repent and believe in the gospel’ or ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ are spoken whilst the cross is being drawn.
The first known example of the practice, or one very similar, was by Pope Urban II in 1091 when he used ashes to mark the beginning of Lent. However, ashes were used before this in demonstrations of repentance for sins. Ashes have been a symbol of repentance from Biblical times from when the king of Nineveh displayed his penitence to God by sitting in ashes in a sackcloth.