Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and fasting for Christians leading up to Easter.Ash Wednesday is considered a day to cleanse the soul and body as Lent begins. The actual date of Ash Wednesday is determined by the lunar calendar, which is why it changes every year. Ash Wednesday can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. This year, Ash Wednesday is (today) February 14, coinciding with Valentine’s Day.A priest places ash on the forehead of a parishioner (file photo)Ash Wednesday derives its name from the blessing of ashes made from palm branches or crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which are burnt. The ashes are usually placed on the foreheads of Christians in the sign of a cross during mass. The custom reminds parishioners that they are ultimately sinners and need to repent. It is also said to be a reminder that death comes to everyone.Ashes have been used since ancient times to express grief. The gesture was also used to express sorrow for sins and faults. In Job 42:3–6, Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).Priests will administer the ashes along with the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, signalling to people that they should start their period of fasting and introspection.Lent symbolises the days which lead up to Jesus’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, when Christ spent 40 days and nights alone in the Judean Desert being tempted by Satan. The penitential observance originated as a mirroring of this period.Millions of Christians observe Lent. Most believers tend to give up something they enjoy until Lent ends to deny the needs of the flesh in order to focus on the needs of the spirit. It is regarded as a period of spiritual preparation to grow closer to God in the run-up to Easter.Lent is preceded by Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French – the final day of carnival around the world), also called Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, comes from the practice of eating up all the rich fatty foods before fasting which subsequently lent itself to the all-out revelry of carnival which ensued before the solemn Lent period. The name Shrove Tuesday comes from the word “shrive”, meaning absolution for sins by doing penance and the tradition of Christians trying to be ‘shriven’ before Lent. Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as worshippers used up rich foods, including eggs, milk and sugar, before they began their fast during Lent.