In the years immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus, believers began engaging in a time of focus on their sin and God’s forgiveness of that sin in advance of the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Over time, the church standardized 40 days (not counting Sundays) as a period of reflection and called it Fortieth or Lent. Like the Jewish celebration of Passover when celebrants remove yeast and all foods containing yeast, Lent was a time of removing certain foods or pleasures so one could concentrate on God.
Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, began as a time of eating a final big meal before the forty days of fasting, prayer and restriction of pleasures. As with many traditions, Mardi Gras became secularized and became a day for overindulgence, superstition, and debauchery.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, and in many church traditions it is a time when Christians gather for corporate confession and individual repentance. At the end of the service, priests, pastors, or church leaders place ashes, in the sign of the cross, on the forehead of believers while saying “from dust you have come, to dust you will return.”
This is a reminder that one’s physical body is temporal, while the spirit is eternal. Therefore, a Christian is asked to reflect on his or her relationship with God and possibly set aside a habit or a pleasure for 40 days to help one focus on Jesus, his sacrifice on our behalf, and on his commands to worship God and love and serve others.
If you don’t yet know this Jesus whose death brings life to all who believe, please read our post, How Does One Become a Christian.