Ashes spread in the shape of a cross on foreheads Wednesday were the outward symbol of the significance Ash Wednesday holds for many Christians in York County.
While Ash Wednesday is considered an important religious event for some, the day is little understood outside the denominations that observe it.
Here's a look at the day and how it's often observed:
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter. During Ash Wednesday services, ashes are generally placed in the shape of a cross on the forehead of church members. The ashes are generally left until evening.
Many churches use this day as a time of repentance, said the Rev. Joseph Wahl of The Oratory, a community of priests and brothers in Rock Hill. When the ashes are being placed they say, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel," he said.
What is the symbolism behind the ashes?
In the Old Testament, ashes were traditionally used to represent mourning or repentance. The person who put ashes on themselves was symbolizing a state of worthlessness, Wahl said.
"The idea of the ashes is to remind you that you're a sinner and that you want to do better," he said.
It's also a symbol of mortality and brings to mind that man will return to dust, Wahl said.
Most churches use ashes from the palm branches used the year before for Palm Sunday services. The ashes are generally mixed with oil.
Who celebrates Lent?
While traditionally known as a Catholic observance, Ash Wednesday services and the recognition of Lent are becoming more common in Protestant churches. In York County on Wednesday, several denominations -- including Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and AME Zion -- held services.
"It's become much more common in probably the last 20 years," said pastor John Pruit of First Presbyterian Church.
How local churches are celebrating Lent
At St. John's United Methodist Church, as is the case with many observing Lent, members generally give up something they love or a bad habit and replace it with something good, said the Rev. Lawrence Hays, pastor. Members are encouraged to spend more time on spiritual activities, he said.
"Basically, you give up what's most important to you," he said. "Usually, it's some favorite item of food or some other pleasure. Some people will add a time of Bible reading or time or prayer."
What is a rice bowl?
"If you give up something, the rice bowl is where you put the money that you would have spent on the little treat," Wahl said. "The money that you do not spend on yourself, you give to the poor."
Fasting and reflection
In addition to giving up something for the 40 days, many Catholics practice fasting during Lent. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, they will eat only one major meal and one or two lighter meals. Most refrain from eating between meals those days. On all Fridays during Lent, Catholics are encouraged not to eat meat, Wahl said.
At First Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, members generally don't give up anything or fast, but use it as a time of reflection and preparation for the Easter season, Pruit said.
"We try to get people to be thinking about their spiritual relationship with God," he said. "It's a season where we're supposed to look at ourselves and examine ourselves and see how (by) working with God we can improve our spiritual lives."
What people in York County are doing for Lent
"I'm giving up my blackberry jelly, which is my favorite thing to eat, and I'm giving up almost all of my sweets. I am a sweet-aholic, and I can't give them all up, so I decided to give up everything but peanut butter and vanilla wafers."
-- Pat Long, 61, of Rock Hill
"I'm going to try to balance family time and work time."
-- Austin Bond, 30, of Rock Hill
"Lent is a time for reflection and temperance and a little bit of self-control with things. My focus is to try to be more conscientious in giving more time to those who are in need."
-- Maria Duncan, 58, of York
"I'm giving up my sweets."
-- Johnny Williamson, 64, of Rock Hill