Ash Wednesday will be observed on February 18, 2015, and marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day period of fasting or sacrifice as a means of spiritual renewal and reflection on Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins.
While there is no specific reference to the holy day in the Bible, Ash Wednesday holds a rich history which dates back to the 8th century. According to the history channel, it extends back to the custom during biblical times of people humbling themselves with sackcloth and ashes. The prophet Daniel speaks of seeking the Lord for the release of his people from Babylonian exile with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes (Daniel 9:3). Jonah 3:6 states: "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust."
The holy day, which is observed by believers around the world, derives its name from the tradition of placing ashes on the foreheads of believers as a sign of repentance. Oftentimes, religious leaders will mark the foreheads of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, while speaking the words, "For dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
Traditionally, worshippers choose to leave the ashes, which represent humility, on their foreheads for the remainder of the day as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance, and that through Christ, all sins are forgiven through faith.
Many Christians observe the day through fasting in preparation for lent, mirroring Jesus' own 40-day period of fasting in the Wilderness, as described in Matthew 4: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Other believers make personal vows of abstinence during this day, such as refraining from meat or chocolate, vowing not to gossip, or practicing greater humility. Observers are expected to refrain from worldly pleasures in order to spend time in prayer and repentance.
For Christians, Ash Wednesday is a special day to reflect where our hearts are in relation to God and an annual reminder of the atonement of Jesus Christ in preparation for the Easter celebration of His resurrection.
Writes Dr. Judd Birdsall of The Review on Faith and International Affairs, "Lent is to Easter what Advent is to Christmas. Lent gets us in the "Easter spirit," and helps us appreciate that Easter is theologically more significant than Christmas-even if contemporary Western culture gets it backward.
Christians don't worship a baby who stayed in a manger. We worship a Savior who died for us and rose again that we might, through him, have victory over sin and death. He is risen, so we can be shriven. The season of Lent focuses our hearts and minds on this wonderful truth."