Ash Wednesday is a popular day among Christians worldwide. It is considered to be the first day of Lent, a religious observance where people fast for 40 days (excluding Sundays). The 40-day sign of penitence starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, which is a day before Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday is a day after Shrove Tuesday, popularly known as Fat Tuesday, which often features various carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations in many countries. One most notable celebration in the United States is the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations.
There are some variations in Ash Wednesday's celebration across cultures. Many people observe a fast throughout the lent season by avoiding meat, eggs, dairy products and animal or vegetable oils.
In places such as the Cayman Islands, French Guiana, and Jamaica, Ash Wednesday is a public holiday.
The "Ash Wednesday" is derived from the custom of marking foreheads of the faithful with blessed ashes as a sign of penitence.
For many centuries, the 40-day period of abstinence has been considered as a time for self-introspection and observing humility prior to Easter.
Although Ash Wednesday and the lent season are relatively well-known celebrations across Christian sections, there are few unique facts about this season that many would possibly not know. Following are few of them:
1. Fasting not really required
Despite the tradition of fasting depicted in the Bible, and Jesus' referenced to it, the New Testament teaching does not require fasting and says that neither Jesus nor his disciples made fasting obligatory. However, during the lent season, many of the faithful Christians commit to fasting or in many instances, give up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence.
2. Lent Actually Means 'Spring'
During the middle ages, when sermon began to be given in the vernacular instead of Latin, the English word lent was said to be adopted. The word initially meant only 'Spring', just like in the German language 'Lenz' and Dutch 'Lente'. It derives from the Germanic root for long, simply referring to the fact that the days are beginning to become longer in spring.
3. '40' has many symbolic representation
As the fasting period of 40 days is observed, the number tends to be a symbolic representation of many religious facts or Biblical references. It is traditionally described as fasting for 40 days is in commemoration of the forty days, which, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry where he is said to have endured temptation by the Devil.
Other biblical references where the number 40 is important are: the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God, the 40 days and nights Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb, the 40 days and nights God is said to have sent rain causing the great flood of Noah, the 40 years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert in their journey towards the 'Promised land' and the 40 days Jonah gave in his prophecy of judgment to the city of Ninevah.
4. Ash is the Reminder of Human Mortality
The ashes that are used by priests on the Ash Wednesday usually come from the remains of burned palms that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday. The ash symbolizes death, mortality and sorrow for sin. The marking of ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross also represents that sins are forgiven through Jesus' death and resurrection.
5. 'Ash Monday'
Not all traditions celebrate the concept of Ash Wednesday on a Wednesday. In countries such as Cyprus and Greece, the concept of the first day of Lent is observed on a Monday. Many eastern churches do not generally observe Ash Wednesday but they observe Ash Monday (often called 'Clean Monday' or Green Monday).