Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent as observed by many Christians. Lent is the forty days prior to Easter, and is a time to reflect on one’s sins, and on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. For many Christians, particularly those in Protestant and Catholic households, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting as well, and a day when one attends Mass or a church service.
The Sunday prior to Easter is called Palm Sunday. In many churches, palms are given, which Christians may keep during the year. A few weeks before Ash Wednesday of the next year, churches may ask people to return their palms to the church. They are normally burnt, with a tiny bit of oil.
On Ash Wednesday, people at church services have their foreheads marked in the sign of the cross with the ashes from the burnt palms, by a priest, a deacon or a layperson like a Eucharistic minister. The mark is worn for the rest of the day and should not be removed until after sundown.
Ash Wednesday is also a typical day for fasting in many Christian sects. This is most common in Catholicism. People may abstain from any food prior to attending the Ash Wednesday service, and generally abstain from meat for the rest of the day. Not all Catholics observe these guidelines however.
The day before Ash Wednesday is often called Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, and is a traditional day for partying and feasting. People may indulge in all their favorite things, and most especially in anything they plan to give up for the observation of Lent. With the onset of Ash Wednesday, one begins the path of giving up things for Lent, like drinking or eating chocolate, that symbolize sharing in Christ’s life of simplicity. One is also penitent for sins committed during the year, and vows to do better and be more Christlike in life.
Ash Wednesday also symbolizes the Christian belief that humans were created from dust, and will return to dust and ash when they die. This belief, however, is offset by the belief that the death of Christ allowed for people to be more than simply dust; it allowed for an eternal life in heaven, outside the body. It can either be a stark reminder of what will happen if Christ’s prescriptives are not followed, or simply a symbol that because of Christ, one's spirit does not die with one’s body.
There is no biblical description of Ash Wednesday in either Roman Catholic or Protestant Bibles. However, there are numerous descriptions of people using ashes to mourn or to express penitence. One can find references to ash and penitence in the books of Samuel, Job, Esther, Matthew and Daniel.
Ash Wednesday falls on different days each year, just as Easter does. Easter is always celebrated the Sunday after the first full moon that occurs after the spring equinox. This is a little confusing, since the way this is calculated is based on a lunar calendar, not the Gregorian or Julian calendar. However, once Easter is calculated, one counts back 46 days to reach Ash Wednesday. Typically this date is not before early February and not later than early March.
It should be noted that Eastern Orthodox Churches use the Julian calendar, and thus arrive at a different date for both Ash Wednesday and for Easter. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices Lent in much the same way that does the Roman Catholic Church.