Ash Wednesday: The start of Lent for millions of Christians

The commemoration of Jesus' 40 days in the desert is a period of conversion and internal renewal in preparation for the celebration of Easter.

With Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which prepares millions of Christians around the world for the celebration of Easter. It is a time of conversion and internal renewal, emphasizing prayer, fasting and almsgiving, commemorating the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert without eating or drinking.

A fourth century tradition

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The Church joins every year, during the forty days of Great Lent, to the Mystery of Jesus in the desert." The current format of this period dates back to the fourth century, when it began to constitute it as a time of penance and personal renewal and for the whole church, for which fasting and abstinence are recommended.

The latter is what Lent is best known for. It is traditionally seen as a time where eating red meat is prohibited on Fridays and Ash Wednesday itself. It is also a time where Christians are recommended to dispense with certain indulgences, such as TV, games or other forms of entertainment in order to dedicate that time to prayer and meditation and as an offering to God.

Ash 'symbolizes man's weak and expired condition'

On Ash Wednesday, Christians place a cross of ash on their foreheads. This tradition actually came along much later than the establishment of Lent. In fact, it was in the 10th century when it became obligatory for the Catholic liturgy, according to the biblical texts of Genesis 3:19 and the Gospel of St. Mark 1:15. Two centuries later, the tradition began that the ashes used should come from the branches and palms blessed the previous year during Palm Sunday, which opens Holy Week and commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

The ash "symbolizes the weak and expired condition of man, who walks towards death; his sinful situation; the prayer and ardent supplication for the Lord to come to his aid; the Resurrection, since man is destined to participate in the triumph of Christ."

A penitential time

The ultimate goal of Lent is the preparation of the Christian for the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, it is a time of penance, recognition, confession and absolution of sins in order to cleanse oneself and be prepared to welcome Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The interior penance of the Christian can have very varied expressions. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms: fasting, prayer and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, in relation to God and in relation to others. Along with the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom, they cite, as a means of obtaining forgiveness of sins, the efforts made to reconcile oneself with one's neighbor, the tears of penance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity "which covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).