Every year, believers around the world observe Ash Wednesday, or the first day of the Season of Lent. This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 10th, and marks the beginning of the 40-day period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the tradition of placing ashes on the foreheads of believers as a sign of repentance and humility. It is known to be celebrated as early as the fifth century, and it was called dies cinerum (day of ashes). While the day was originally observed by the Catholic Church, it now extends to Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestant denominations.
Because Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, churches are often decorated with purple colors in penance. Christians observe Ash Wednesday by visiting a local church, where religious leaders dispense ashes, making the sign of the cross on their bowed foreheads. As they deliver the ashes, pastors or priests recite Genesis 3:19: "For dust you are and to dust you shall return."
Traditionally, worshippers choose to leave the ashes 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. Ashes also symbolize grief, in this case, grief that we have sinned and caused division from God.
In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something they value, such as a favorite food or activity, or volunteering and giving of themselves for others.
Ash Wednesday traditions and customs do not vary much from country to country; however, the day is considered a public holiday in places such as the Cayman Islands, French Guiana, and Jamaica, and a regional holiday in some areas in Cape Verde and Brazil. It is a holiday for bank and/or government workers, as well as some businesses, in places such as Guadeloupe and Panama.
While it is not a national public holiday in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, local observances are often held.
Additionally, while Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day, Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the "Great Lent" rather than simply "Lent."
Wherever they may be in the world, Ash Wednesday should remind Christians that they are sinners in need of a savior, and that their salvation comes at the sacrifice of God's Son.