Ash Wednesday is an important day for Christians worldwide. Considered to be the first day of Lent— a religious observance where people fast for 40 days, excluding Sundays -- Ash Wednesday falls on 18 February this year.
Ash Wednesday comes a day after Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras popularly known as 'Fat Tuesday', which features various carnival sand parades in many countries. The most popular and notable celebration in the US is the New Orleans Mardi Gras Carnival.
Ash Wednesday celebrations take different forms in different cultures although the idea of fasting, penitence and reflection is the common underlying theme of the season.
As the name suggest, Ash Wednesday is in reference to the custom of marking foreheads of the faithful with blessed ashes, which is thought to be a sign of penitence.
The 40-day period of abstinence is considered a time for introspection and observance of humility and reflection prior to Easter.
Here are a few lesser known facts about Ash Wednesday and the Lent season:
Fasting is not actually needed
Despite the overwhelming participation the 'fasting' ritual has seen over the decades and despite the depiction of the practice in Bible and Jesus' reference to it, the New Testament teaching does not make it obligatory to fast.
But many followers believe fasting and living an austere life for the season is a form of penitence.
The Real meaning of 'Lent' is 'Spring'
The English word 'lent' is believed to have been adopted during the middle ages when sermons were given in vernacular languages instead of Latin. The literal meaning of the word is 'spring' just like how the German word 'lenz' and Dutch 'lente' translates. Derived from the German root for 'long', the word is surmised to be referring to the fact that it is the beginning of a long spring.
There are many Symbols for '40'
As the fasting period of 40 days is observed, the number tends to be a symbolic representation of many religious facts or Biblical references. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent fasting in the desert for 40 days before the beginning of his public ministry where he is said to have endured temptation by the Devil.
There are other reference of the number 40 elsewhere in the Bible: 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 judgement to the city of Ninevah.
'Ash' is Reminder of Human Mortality
The ashes that are used by priests usually come from the remains of burned palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of previous year. The ash symbolises 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, various sources have claimed.
In countries such as Cyprus and Greece, the concept of the first day of Lent is observed on a Monday rather than on Wednesday. Many eastern churches do not generally observe Ash Wednesday but they observe Ash Monday (often called 'Clean Monday' or Green Monday).