Wondering why a small dusty cross anoints the foreheads of Christians once a year? Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, a 40-day period of penance for Christians around the world. It always falls on the Wednesday six and a half weeks before Easter, which Christians believe is the day Jesus was resurrected.
The origins of Lent trace to 325 CE, when it was more commonly used as a preparation phase for baptisms. The holiday's length is an homage to Jesus Christ’s 40-day fast as he traveled through the wilderness after being baptized and before he began his ministry. This period is considered by Christians to be God's test of Jesus's spirituality and ability to withstand temptation.
Today, Christians use the holiday both to repent and reflect. The ash cross marking observers’ foreheads is meant to represent mortality and penance for their sins. It is applied by a priest during a morning mass, often along with a small blessing: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Many choose to keep it on all day. The ash is made from the burned palm leaves used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus's arrival to Jerusalem. It’s believed that residents welcomed him by waving palm fronds.
Ash Wednesday sets the tone for Lent, which is considered a time for self-improvement. Originally, Christians observing Lent were allowed only one meal a day and were forbidden from eating meat or fish during the entire period. This tradition was relaxed by Roman Catholics around World War II. While some still abide by a strict version of the fast on Fridays during Lent, many instead choose to give up indulgences like alcohol and social media. Lent ends on Easter, more than six weeks after Ash Wednesday. (Sundays are not counted in the 40-day observation period.)
Eastern and Western churches use different days to mark the start of Lent. In the west, Ash Wednesday opens the holiday. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, Lent begins on the Monday seven weeks before Easter and Ash Wednesday is not observed. (Why some people celebrate Christmas in January.)