Ash Wednesday: Lent begins for Western Christians

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22: Today, the majority of the world’s Christians enter Lent, the reflective season that leads to Easter. Today is the beginning of what is sometimes called Western Lent. Some years, the Eastern Christian Lenten calendar coincides, but this year the Eastern cycle is a week later. While Western Lent always begins on a Wednesday; Eastern Lent begins on February 27 with Clean Monday. The two branches of Christianity then “count” their 40 days following different rules, so that they reach Easter on April 8 in Western churches and April 15 in Eastern congregations.

Why “Ash”? The holiday refers to ashes, because of the most famous custom of penance in this season. In Ash Wednesday services, each year, church leaders (usually ordained clergy) apply ashes to mark a believer’s forehead. The ashes traditionally come from palm branches—a memory of last year’s Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Many clergy actually burn the carefully saved and dried palms to create the ashes (usually with a little olive oil added). However, the vast majority of churches these days simply order the ashes in sealed containers prepared by Christian-supply companies. Burning and mixing palm ash is a tricky and messy process for those not expert at this custom.

Always on the forehead? Most American Ash Wednesday services leave men, women and children with a cross on the forehead. Each year on this day, it’s fascinating to visit a mall or other large public place where you’ll see people carrying this distinctive mark as the day unfolds. But, there are places in the world where ashes aren’t marked on the forehead—instead, they may be sprinkled over the heads of the faithful. Some monks receive the ash on their tonsure—the shaved spot that marks their vocation.


ReadTheSpirit is proud to release, for Lent 2012, the 2nd Edition of Our Lent: Things We Carry. It’s a 40-day and 40-chapter inspirational book connecting stories from the life of Jesus with real things we experience today. We recommend that you read our special report on the growing popularity of the season across the U.S. That report includes links to learn more about the release of this new book—and links to read a couple of sample chapters as well. This year, you also can purchase Our Lent for all e-readers.


Our reporting often refers to Western and Eastern branches of Christianity and, especially in Lent 2012, these two huge branches of Christianity around the world are on distinctively different schedules.

How many ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Christians are there? Roughly one third of the world’s population identifies as Christian. That’s more than 2 billion of the world’s close to 7 billion people. The “Eastern” or “Orthodox” branch of Christianity usually is estinated at about 250 million adherents, which means that most Christians around the world follow “Western” customs. The United States is distinctive globally for its high levels of religious practice, coupled with the strong value Americans place on self expression. Since the majority of Americans identify as Christian, our culture is shaped in major ways by religious seasons and holidays. The vast majority of American Christians attend Western churches and follow Western customs.

Estimates of religious populations vary widely and individual religious groups count their followers under a range of rules. Some count only religiously active adults—people who have taken memership vows, attend services and donate money. Other religious groups, including the Catholic church, count all baptized persons from infancy whether they are regularly active or not.

Overall, among Western branches of Christianity, Catholics (meaning Catholics who look to the Vatican for their spiritual leadership) usually are estimated at slightly more than 1 billion. Depending on the definitions used to define “Protestant” churches (those that sprang from the Reformation 500 years ago), that branch accounts for anywhere from 400 to 800 million. A strict definition of Protestants as adherents of more mainline denominations brings the total down toward 400-500 million. Sometimes nondenominational Christians and Pentecostals are grouped with Protestants; sometimes they aren’t.

The Anglicans: One distinctive branch within the post-Reformation churches is the Anglican Community, which includes the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Estimates vary of the world’s Anglican population, but this body of churches is believed to have somewhere between 80 and 90 million adherents at the moment. Why is this branch considered special? As the Reformation era unfolded, the Anglican branch began in England claiming to defend traditonal Christianity under the supervision of a national leader, rather than bowing to the Vatican. Anglicans essentially declared that they were preserving traditional Catholic ideals, but under a new structure of authority. They weren’t breaking away to reform the whole church in the way that religious leaders in Germany and Switzerland understood the Reformation. Of course, England’s turbulent religious history is familiar to many Americans through Masterpiece Theater and other popular films and books about British history. To this day, this branch of Christianity claims a special status for itself.

The Anabaptists: Another Reformation-era group of believers that emerged in Christianity, the Anabaptists, are alive and well in the United States, although their numbers are tiny. The most famous descendants of this branch are Amish and Mennonites. These groups generally are quite small, compared with the overall population, but hold a distinctive place in American culture.

To illustrate these branches, Wikipedia provides this handy color-coded chart:

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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