Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 13 this year, marks the beginning of the Lenten season in the West, a time of reflecting on the life and sacrifices of Jesus Christ — a time of fasting, prayer and penitence before Easter.
Lent takes the believer on a journey through Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and his ministry to the time he enters Jerusalem for the final time. Characterized by a period of fasting — with Ash Wednesday and Good Friday reserved for the strictest of fasting — Lent is well-known as a time when believers not only give up preferred foods, but may also sacrifice physical activity or other indulgences to dedicate extra time and energy to meditating, praying or helping others. It is hoped that by giving up those items, the believer will be drawn closer to God.
The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word meaning “spring,” the time of year during which the 40 days fall.
Not every denomination recognizes the Lenten season. Some see it as a church tradition as opposed to a Biblical mandate.
Lent is traditionally the 40 days, excluding Sundays, leading up to Easter Sunday, which this year will be observed on March 31. On Sundays during Lent, believers can partake of those foods from which they have abstained during the season. The focus of sacrifice is not so much what’s been given up, but the believer’s personal relationship with God.
The number “40” is significant in several examples from the Bible in which worship occurred for a 40-day period. Moses worshipped on the Mount of God for 40 days; Nineveh was given 40 days to repent; Elijah traveled for 40 days to reach the cave where he had his vision; and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying before beginning his ministry.
Symbolically, the color purple also plays a particular role in the season, as it is associated with mourning and royalty.
Parishioners participating in Ash Wednesday observances at many denominations — Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist — typically receive an ashen marking of a cross on their forehead. Most churches use ashes processed by the burning of the previous year’s Palm Sunday palms.
While the ash marking on the forehead serves as a sign of penitence and mortality and is a physical symbol based on God’s sentencing of Adam in Genesis 3:19, the cross shape symbolizes that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from sin.
The day before Ash Wednesday — Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday — is a day of penitence to clean the soul and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins.
Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the Christian ritual of an individual confessing their sins and receiving absolution for them, or shriving. Upon doing so, they are forgiven of their sins and freed of the burden of guilt and pain often associated with those sins. It is also the last day to indulge before the beginning of Lent, and in the old days, meant eating all those foods that were forbidden, including meats, fats, eggs and milk, perishable foods that wouldn’t last through the 40-day fast. Hence the French term “Mardi Gras,” or Fat Tuesday, which also alludes to this religious custom. The day is also called “Pancake Day,” named for the food traditionally eaten on this day to use up all the milk, eggs and fats in the house.
Information from bbc.co.uk and aboutcatholics.com.