Millions of Christians worldwide will usher in the 40-day season of Lent by imposing the sign of the cross on their foreheads with ash on Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday, which falls 46 days before Easter – 40 if not counting Sundays – marks the beginning of a season of reflection and penitence for Christians of the Western traditions.
“Through the traditional practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, which are an expression of our commitment to conversion, Lent teaches us how to live the love of Christ in an ever more radical way,” explained Pope Benedict XVI in this year’s message for Lent.
While most Protestants do not mark their foreheads with ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday ceremonies – a tradition mainly observed in the Catholic and Anglican churches – they hold special services and give special prayers for repentance and renewal on the first day of Lent.
Often times, in the days leading to Easter, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians choose to abstain from eating, drinking or doing certain things to remind them of the Lord’s sacrifice for mankind.
Devout Catholics, meanwhile, observe Ash Wednesday by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance - a day of contemplating one's transgressions.
“Fasting, which can have various motivations, takes on a profoundly religious significance for the Christian,” Pope Benedict noted this year. “For Christians, fasting, far from being depressing, opens us ever more to God and to the needs of others, thus allowing love of God to become also love of our neighbor.”
In his message for Lent, the pontiff decried consumerism, claiming that “[t]he of possession leads to violence, exploitation and death.”
“The idolatry of goods,” he said, “not only causes us to drift away from others, but divests man, making him unhappy, deceiving him, deluding him without fulfilling its promises, since it puts materialistic goods in the place of God, the only source of life.”
Conversely, the practice of almsgiving, Benedict noted, “is a reminder of God's primacy and turns our attention towards others, so that we may rediscover how good our Father is, and receive his mercy.”
“The Lenten period is a favorable time to recognize our weakness and to accept, through a sincere inventory of our life, the renewing Grace of the Sacrament of Penance, and walk resolutely towards Christ,” he added.
This year, Easter will be observed on Sunday, April 24, and will be preceded two days before by Good Friday and one week before by Palm Sunday.
In Eastern Christianity, the spiritual preparation for the week leading to Easter begins with Great Lent, which starts on Clean Monday and lasts for 40 continuous days (including Sundays). Clean Monday, this year, was observed on March 7.