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 ...

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