As the fun of Mardi Gras celebrations wind down, Christians around the world are gearing up for Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent. This 40-day spiritual period of solemn reflection begins on March 1 this year. Its exact date changes every year according to when Easter falls.
A Priest prepares black ashes for the Ash Wednesday ceremony at Roh Kudus Church in Surabaya, Indonesia, March 5, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
What is Lent? Lent is a period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter where Christians try to imitate Jesus Christ's actions with the help of spiritual purification, meditation and penance. It lasts around 40 days, excluding Sundays, drawing from the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert before his crucifixion. The English word Lent is a shortened form of the Old English word "Lenten," which means spring. Traditionally, before Ash Wednesday and the 40-day fast season of Lent begins, people eat pancakes to use up rich, indulgent foods like eggs and milk. Easter falls on Sunday, April 16, this year. Roman Catholics and other western Christian groups including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Anglicans observe Lent.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl placed ashes on the foreheads of Catholics during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., Feb. 18, 2015. Photo: Getty Images
What do people give up for Lent and how is it observed? Lent traditionally comprises prayer, fasting and abstinence. Most believers tend to give up something during Lent to "purify" their bodies. Children could give up something like chocolates, sweets, watching television or certain toys they liked playing with, while adults tend to give up things such as coffee, alcohol or smoking. Some households also tend to give up eggs, meat and dairy products. Many believers consider this period to be auspicious and use it to volunteer at a charity or donate money to a good cause. When this Christian holiday was first observed in the fourth century, fasting was mandatory throughout the process and Christians would only focus on self-denial and self-examination for Easter. However, restricting oneself from consuming red meat has become the primary goal in recent years.
Catholics received ashes on Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, Feb. 10, 2016. Photo: Getty Images
Major days in Lent: Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent. Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter that commemorates Jesus' successful entry into Jerusalem. Maundy Thursday or the Holy Thursday commemorates the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, before he was arrested. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and Jesus's death. Easter Sunday is the day that recognizes the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI led the Ash Wednesday service at the St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Vatican, Feb. 13, 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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