Western Christians begin Lent with Ash Wednesday

Christians worldwide receive ashes on their foreheads today.WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13: The gaiety of Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday has ended and today—Ash Wednesday—begins the 40 days of Lent.


World’s Biggest Religion: 1 in 3 people on Earth are Christian, according to Pew’s new Global Religious Landscape. Of those 2.2 billion people, half are Catholic, 27 percent are Protestant and 12 percent are Eastern Orthodox.
The East Starts Later
: The nearly 300 million Eastern Christians start Lent with Clean Monday, but that doesn’t fall this year until March 18. From East to West, Christian leaders still disagree on rules for calculating the dates of Lent and Easter.
More Than a Religious Holiday: Ash Wednesday was the first long poem written by T.S. Eliot after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. Many artists, musicians and writers have used Ash Wednesday as a setting or a metaphor, including three movies titled for the holiday (all of which were flops and are rarely seen today).


FREE FOR YOU in ReadTheSpirit:
TODAY, ReadTheSpirit begins a weekly series of inspiring Lenten stories by author Dr. Benjamin Pratt. The overall series is called “An Intimate Lenten Journey,” inspired by Father Richard Rohr’s encouragement of intimacy in faith. Dr. Pratt’s first column in this new series is titled “From Generation to Generation—Deep Calls to Deep,” borrowing a phrase from Psalm 42.


Lent is the 40-day liturgical season of fasting, special prayer and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. … The number 40 is first noted in the Canons of Nicaea (A.D. 325), likely in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the desert before His public ministry.” That is part of a helpful Guide to a Catholic Lent posted at the Our Sunday Visitor website. Founded just over a century ago, Our Sunday Visitor became the most popular weekly newspaper among Catholic families in the U.S. Right now, Our Sunday Visitor newspapers in 6,000 Catholic parishes nationwide feature a cover story about a “More Meaningful Lent.”

ASH WEDNESDAY DIVERSITY: While 1 in 4 Americans identifies as Catholic, most American Christians are Protestant, and Ash Wednesday customs vary widely among Protestants—including some denominations that do little to mark the Lenten season. In fact, diversity in marking Ash Wednesday circles the globe. Curious what Ash Wednesday looks like around the world? View a slideshow from Boston.com.

WHY ASHES? Down through the centuries, Christian teachers have given many reasons for the use of ashes in starting Lent. Among the reasons listed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are: “Ashes remind us of God’s condemnation of sin, as God said to Adam, ‘Dust you are and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19). And, ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were used anciently in the absence of soap. On Ash Wednesday ashes are a penitential substitute for water as a reminder of our baptism.”

BURNING PALMS TO MAKE ASHES: In many churches around the world, ashes are made each year by burning palm fronds preserved and dried from the previous year’s Holy Week. After burning down into a finely powdered ash, the material often is sifted and then mixed with a bit of olive oil. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America offers detailed Ash Wednesday instructions, including tips for properly preparing and preserving ashes.

LENTEN IDEAS FOR EVERYONE: Another popular source of Lenten materials is the United Methodist website, which provides dozens of pages with inspirational readings, tips and activities for families.

REMEMBER, TODAY: ReadTheSpirit begins a series of inspiring Lenten stories by Dr. Benjamin Pratt.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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