John McCann, a layman at Trinity Church, draws a cross using ash on a man's forehead to symbolize Ash Wednesday, in New York in 2014.
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Updated: February 9, 2018 3:31 PM ET | Originally published: February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14 this year — and kicks off the first day of Lent while signaling the approach of Easter.

Here are four things to know about Ash Wednesday:

What is the meaning of Ash Wednesday?

It marks first day of the 40 days of Lent, a roughly six-week period (not including Sundays) dedicated to reflection, prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter. It ends on Holy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) that marks the Last Supper. In addition to certain rules about foods and fasting, many Christians (and even non-Christians) abstain from additional foods, luxury or material goods or certain activities and habits.

Why do people put ashes on their head on Ash Wednesday?

You may see a lot of people with black crosses on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

The ashes are obtained from the burning of the palms of the previous Palm Sunday, which occurs on the Sunday before Easter, and applied during services. Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ return to Jerusalem, when people waved palm branches to celebrate his arrival. The ashes are typically mixed with Holy Water or oil.

Why is it called Ash Wednesday?

The ashes, applied in the shape of a cross, are a symbol of penance, mourning and mortality. Centuries ago, participants used to sprinkle themselves with ashes and repent much more publicly, but the practice fell away sometime between the 8th-10th century before evolving into what it is today. There aren’t any particular rules about how long the ashes should be worn, but most people wear them throughout the day as a public expression of their faith and penance.

What are other Ash Wednesday traditions?

On Ash Wednesday, Catholic adults must observe a fast—eating only one large meal or two small meals. Those meals must not contain any meat. In fact, Catholics 14 and older must refrain from eating meat on every Friday from Ash Wednesday until Good Friday. In accordance with Lent as a time of abstinence, many Catholics choose to give something up or change an ingrained habit during the 40-day period. The Church also encourages the faithful to give more time to prayer and charity before the celebration of Easter.

Read next: This Soccer Match May Just Be the Craziest Ash Wednesday Tradition Ever

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