We attended Ash Wednesday services last night to mark the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a tradition that did not observe Lent, but our denomination has begun to emphasize it more in the last few years. I have learned a lot from my Catholic Christian brothers and sisters about Lenten customs and the value of sacrificial discipline during this time of spiritual preparation in the Christian calendar. Here are a few facts about Lent and Ash Wednesday for others of you who were not raised with this tradition.
The word "lent" comes from the Germanic word for springtime. It can be seen as a time for a spiritual "spring cleaning" of those things which hinder our relationship and service to Jesus Christ.
Lent is traditionally a 40-day observance marked by fasting and other acts of penance and contrition beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Holy Saturday-the day before Easter. The six Sundays in this period are not counted in the 40 days because each one represents a "mini-Easter," a celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death. This season of penance, reflection, fasting and alms giving is meant to prepare us for Resurrection Sunday (Easter.) The exact dates of observance for Lent can vary between churches.
On Ash Wednesday, foreheads are marked with ashes to humble us and remind us that "... (You are) dust, and unto dust you shall return." Ashes are a symbol of penance and contrition which help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice. They remind us that God is gracious and merciful to all who call on Him with repentant hearts. (Various sources.)