Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season leading up to Easter, is this week for most Christians. In traditional Catholic and some Protestant churches, services will be held and parishioners will receive the ashen mark of a cross on their forehead. The priest or minister usually says these words from Genesis: "Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return."
In the Catholic Church, the ashes are made by burning the palm branches blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year, then adding holy water and incense. In other traditions, palm ashes are mixed with water or oil.
Lent is the 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter when people can acknowledge their sins, meditate on God and Scripture, and prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Forty days is a recurring biblical number. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Elijah traveled for 40 days to reach the cave where God spoke to him in a still, small voice. Jonah told the inhabitants of Nineveh that their city would be destroyed in 40 days. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus was seen by the disciples and crowds of other people for 40 days after his resurrection.
In the Bible, people who are mourning or repentant often donned ashes on their heads and wore sackcloth. Job, who lost many of his family and possessions, is one example. In the 10th century, a Catholic homilist said, "Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."
Many Christians fast during Lent, just as Muslims fast during Ramadan and Jews fast during Yom Kippur. In all three faiths, it's a time to give up food for a time to focus on God and a time of repentance for the things you have done wrong.
The Lenten fast helps Christians "mortify our egoism and open our hearts to love of God and neighbor," said Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month.
Some Catholics and Protestants fast from things other than -- or in addition to -- food. Last year, The Bee interviewed parishioners who fasted from energy-consuming activities such as driving their cars and focused instead on environmentally friendly practices. Some people refrain from unnecessary purchases. Others may give up a pleasurable habit, such as television, dessert or mystery books.
Fasting "nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word," the pope said.