LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Every year on Ash Wednesday it's how the awkward conversation begins. A well meaning co-worker points out a black smudge on someone's forehead, not knowing it's supposed to be there.
The smudge is the imposition of ashes, often on the forehead in the shape of a cross. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lenten season, when Christians take time to prepare for Easter through a time of fasting and prayer. The imposition of ashes nears a holy obligation for many Catholics, although technically it is not.
"It's my expression of my walk with Jesus," said Gayle Nichols, a parishioner at St. Andrew's Catholic Church.
For Catholics and other Christians, wearing ashes serves as a sign of turning away from sin. Lent recognizes the temptation faced by Jesus in the desert.
"The road that Jesus traveled that Jesus walked. The church observes 40 days of fasting and praying," said Father "Joe" Kannampuzha, St. Andrew's Catholic Church.
Jesus went without food and water for 40 days, so Gayle Nichols is setting out to try something similar.
"Well I'm really taking a leap of faith I love Mexican food and I'm giving it up for a whole 40 days," said Nichols.
She hopes a small sacrifice will only better her walk with God.
"I figure I pray every time I want a taco, I'll talk to him more," said Nichols.
Father Joe says depriving yourself reminds the faithful of their dependence on God.
They can give up food. They can give up gossiping. They can give up anger. That kind of cleansing is important too," said Father Joe.
"I'm going to try to be a better person, give more of myself," said Teresa McKewen, St. Andrew's Catholic Church.
For young Catholics, Lent is not always an easy time.
"As a baby Christian it was really a chore, it was something your parents told you to do, now its my gift to God," said Nichols.
"Everybody in the church holds you accountable. We keep each all other accountable," said McKewen.
The ashes come from palm fronds, or the stems and leaves, used to celebrate Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week when Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being greeted like a king, with the crowd waving palm fronds and laying their coats on the ground. During Holy Week Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday marks the end of Holy Week and the end of any Lenten fasts.
"Like God said 'I will give you back your joy,' they'll see joy from God," said Father Joe
In the Catholic tradition parishioners keep the palm fronds in their house all year, until the start of the Lenten season. The church then collects the fronds and burns them to create the ash.
While it may not be an obligation, it is an important tradition for millions of Catholics.
In the U.S., many other Christian denominations mark Ash Wednesday with similar services or traditions. Those include: Anglicans, Methodists, Reformed churches, Lutherans, and some Baptists.