In the darkness of the quiet stone church on Ash Wednesday, I went forward to the front at the end of a long line and, when my turn came, knelt before the pastor. He prayed, "Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen." Then he dipped his thumb in a small dish of ashes and, with the words "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," marked the sign of the cross on my forehead.

When the service was over—having heard a reading from Joel 2, recited Psalm 51, prayed for forgiveness, and received Communion—I went out into the bright noon sunshine and got on the bus that would take me across campus to my next class. A young woman looked at me quizzically. "I've seen a lot of people with those marks on their forehead today," she asked. "Is it some kind of sorority hazing thing?"

"No," I said, "it's a church thing." And so it is. The origins of our modern Lenten practices go back to the earliest days of the church, when potential converts first underwent a fast of 40 hours before their baptisms at the Easter Vigil—soon extended to a period of prayer, fasting, and contemplation lasting 40 days. (Biblical models for this included Noah's time on the Ark and Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, as well as Israel's wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.)

Sometime around the ninth or tenth century, this 40-day Lenten discipline merged with another service the church had developed several hundred years earlier to help sinners embody their repentance. (The first mention of Ash Wednesday by name is in a seventh-century service book, the Gelasian Sacramentary.) Those who had fallen into what the early church considered serious sin—everything from committing adultery to serving in the military to performing magic and occult practices—after confessing that sin were enrolled in an "order of penitents" until they had made restitution. In many ways, they were treated similarly to converts preparing for baptism, as they sat separately from the rest of the congregation, sometimes dressed in special clothing, and did not participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. Also, they wore ashes on their heads, drawing from the biblical precedent and imagery of verses such as Numbers 19:9,17; Hebrews 9:13; Jeremiah 6: 26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13.

No one knows exactly who decided that the imposition of ashes to remind people of their mortality and need for repentance would be a useful spiritual practice, not simply for self-avowed penitents, but for all believers. But by the 11th century the practice became a common marker of the beginning of Lent in the Western church. (The Eastern Orthodox have never adopted the practice, though they have their own versions of Lenten fasting and discipline.) Along with it soon developed the celebratory eating and drinking on the day before Lent, which we now know as Shrove Tuesday (and which, in many modern Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, remains a highly-anticipated day for all-church pancake suppers!)

During the Protestant Reformation, the practice of Ash Wednesday soon died out in Reformed churches, which suppressed the church year in general due to a desire not to see one day as holier than another and a concern that people commonly marked feast days with too much feasting and associated frivolities. (Even Easter and Christmas were seen as problematic for these reasons.) Lutherans and Anglicans retained the service, though they often omitted the imposition of ashes and encouragement to fast. Ash Wednesday did not, however, carry over into those free-church traditions that developed out of the Anglican context, such as Methodists and Baptists. (When John Wesley sent his adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer to America to serve as the Sunday Service of the new Methodist Episcopal Church there, he kept the book's sacramental core but removed much of the Christian year that surrounded it—including one of his personal favorites, All Saints' Day.) Modern celebrations of Ash Wednesday in these traditions date from the liturgical ferment following Vatican II, when both Roman Catholics and Protestants began to take a much greater interest in each other's liturgical traditions—and in the necessity of actions to speak the Gospel to the senses just as words spoke it to the brain.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy itself in modern practice includes three main sections. The first involves the public reading of Scriptures and psalms chosen to put the congregation in a repentant frame of mind—those mentioned above and others, including Isaiah 58, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6. Many of these Scriptures focus on the need for repentance of the heart resulting in justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor. The second section is the imposition of ashes, with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. (The ashes are commonly made by burning the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration.) And the third is the celebration of Holy Communion. As we come forward to receive the bread and wine, conscious of our own mortality and painfully aware that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," the grace of God is displayed to us penitent believers as greater than all our sin.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is adjunct professor of church history at four institutions (Asbury Theological Seminary, Huntington University, Southwestern College, and United Theological Seminary).