On February 10, believers around the world will observe Ash Wednesday, which opens the Season of Lent, a special time of fasting, repentance and prayer.
Falling just 46 days before Easter -- the celebration of Christ's resurrection -- Ash Wednesday emphasizes two specific themes: our sinfulness before God and our human mortality. In turn Lent officially ends on Holy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) that marks the Last Supper.
Why do we celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent?
While there is no specific mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, the practice of repentance and mourning in sackcloth and ashes is found throughout the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament, 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).
Later, the prophet 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 New Testament book of Matthew speaks of Jesus' period in the Judean Wilderness, where He spent 40 days and 40 nights in solitude, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 4). Thus, the forty days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan.
Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or volunteering and giving of themselves for others. 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.
Church Service Traditions
While Ash Wednesday was originally observed by the Catholic Church, it now extends to Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestant denominations.
On this day, many believers will attend church services which focus on human sinfulness and mortality, allowing us to realize that both have been triumphed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Oftentimes, the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday service are saved, and then burned to produce the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service. Religious leaders mark the foreheads of each participant with the 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 on their foreheads for the remainder of the day. These ashes are an outward sign and symbol of grief, as well as purification and sorrow for sins.
What does Ash Wednesday mean for Christians?
For those who have placed their trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ, Ash Wednesday is a special day to reflect on our relationship with God in preparation for the Easter celebration of the resurrection of His son.
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."