Ash Wednesday marks the start of a 40-day period of self-sacrifice for some. After the madness of Mardi Gras, some Christians will buckle down into a period of fasting, from both food and festivities.
For those who don’t know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a forty day liturgical period of prayer and fasting known as Lent. According the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, during which he endured temptation from Satan and triumphed by citing scripture.
The name Ash Wednesday derives from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of mourning and repentance. This practice is celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and some Baptist denominations. At the Mass or service on this Wednesday, a priest or minister marks the forehead of each worshipper with black ashes, which are typically worn until the ash wears off on its own. Sometimes the ashes are placed in the shape of a cross and sometimes there is no particular shape to the ash mark. The priest or minister typically says “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,” (Genesis 3:19) or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” (Mark 1:15) when applying the ashes.
As well as marking the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. Lent prepares the believer for penitence through prayer, penance, repentance, alms giving and self-denial. Observants generally commit to a form of fasting and/or give up certain luxuries. Typical acts of penitence include vigorous prayer, and almsgiving, which is giving materially to another as an act of religious virtue. These days it is also popular to give up a vice and replace it by doing something that will bring the doer closer to God, such as donating or volunteering for charity.
This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 22, with Lent culminating on April 18, Easter Sunday.