Ash Wednesday marks the opening of the season of Lent, a 40-day period of prayer, fasting and penance that ends with Easter Sunday. Each year, both Lent and Easter fall on a slightly different date in keeping with the lunar calendar and Christians may celebrate the start of Lent on slightly different days depending on whether they follow the Eastern or Western rites of the Church.
This year. Ash Wednesday is February 17th for Western Christians. For Roman Catholic Christians, the celebration will open with each participant receiving a cross of ashes on the forehead and a traditional benediction such as, “Remember man that you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” The ashes are made from blessed palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday mass that are burned as a symbol of mortification.
Each variety of Christian may celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent in a slightly different way as well as on a slightly different date. In the Roman Catholic tradition, all healthy adults are required to completely abstain from meat during all the Fridays of Lent and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are required to refrain from eating as well. Additionally, all are required to select some form of self-discipline such as refraining from alcohol or sweets and are encouraged to remit any monies saved to an appropriate charity for the assistance of the poor or the ill.
Although the symbols and even the dates of Ash Wednesday may vary regionally and from Christian Church to Christian Church, the essential meaning remains universally the same: it is a unification of the Christian with his maker and a call to penance and discipline.
The 40-day period commemorates the temptations of Christ when he removed himself to the desert for 40-days of fasting and prayer before his crucifixion. According to the Gospels, while there he was tempted three times by the devil and each time rejected the temptation.
The first temptation was the temptation to break his fast with food. The second temptation was to bow down and worship Satan and receive worldly power in return. But the third temptation remains the most interesting: It is the temptation to self-destruction and to force God to prove that he is there. This is the temptation that echoes the Israelite’s disobedience in the desert and it is to this that Jesus replies: “You shall not put your God to the test.”
For many devote Christians the ultimate meaning of Lent is the continuing battle against self-indulgence, narcissism and nihilism that remains as true today as in the days of our Savior.