Ash Wednesday: Lent begins.

Many of the Christians I grew up with consider this “a Catholic thing,” but the Easter-season Lenten fast predates Roman Catholics by centuries. In the year 325, the first council of Nicea made reference to a 40-day fast before Easter. They didn’t spell out the details of how they observed it, but the τεσσαρκοστή/tessarkostí, “fortieth” fast day before Easter, is when it starts—and that’d be Ash Wednesday.

Ancient custom was to go without food till sundown for each of the fast days. (Skipping one day a week, ’cause you don’t fast on Sabbath.) Among eastern Christians this evolved into a 40-day fast till Holy Week, which started on Clean Monday a week before. Among western Christians it’s Ash Wednesday to Easter.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the western custom of putting ashes on our heads. Sometimes they’re sprinkled on one’s head as part of a ritual, but in English-speaking countries the custom is to use ashes to draw a cross on Christians’ foreheads. A new custom cropped up in the past decade, in which the pastors of mainline churches go to public places with ashes, and draw crosses on anyone who asks. Maybe the people who request crosses are Christian; maybe they’re pagans who think they’re Christian; either way the pastors’ goal is evangelism: Let’s get more people to think about Jesus than usual.

What’s with the ashes? It comes from the bible: When ancient middle easterners grieved, they put ashes on their heads. 2Sa 13.19, Jb 2.8 Ashes were also used to ritually purify sinners. Nu 19.9 So it’s to repeat that custom… although Jesus did tell us when we’re fasting not to broadcast it. Mt 6.16-18 So I don’t know how pleased he is with the Christians who wear their crosses on their foreheads all day; I think he’d much rather we show off our devotion by being fruity.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with going to church and getting a cross marked on you. Rituals can be good reminders to be devout… so long that we don’t practice the rituals instead of being devout.