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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.
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. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

4 Things to Know About Ash Wednesday

Updated: May 23, 2016 11:15 AM ET | Originally published: Feb 18, 2015

Feb. 18 is Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the first day of Lent and signals the approach of Easter. Here are three things to know about the day.

What's the purpose 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.

Where do the ashes some people put on their face come from?

They're 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.

What do the ashes mean?

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 else do Catholics have to do?

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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