Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season. Beginning March 5, and ending on April 17, Lent is a 40-day period when Christians prepare for Easter.

Every year, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. During this time, observers practice fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. This is meant to imitate Jesus Christ’s actions and reflect on his life, death and resurrection.

This year, Pope Francis has chosen the theme, "He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich," for this year’s Lenten message, according to a Vatican statement. The verse comes from St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, where the apostle promotes generosity and giving.

Who Practices Lent?

Lent is most commonly observed by the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations. The Eastern Orthodox churches also observe Lent, but during the 40 days before Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during Holy Week until Orthodox Easter on April 20.

How Is Lent Observed?

Lent was first practiced in the fourth century as a period of self-examination and self-denial to prepare for Easter. While Catholics have observed strict fasting rules over the centuries, nowadays only Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent are considered fasting days. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, observe stricter fasting rules – abstaining from meat, dairy and egg products during this time.

The Lenten season is also seen as a time to give up something pleasurable – which could be anything from chocolate to habits like swearing or procrastinating.

Why Is Lent 40 Days Long?

The 40 days of Lent, or Quadragesima as it is known in Latin, stems from two biblical stories. The first is the Old Testament story of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. The second is the New Testament story of Christ’s 40 days spent in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan.

While the period of Lent is 40 days, depending on the year there can be as many as 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The reason derives from practices during the early Christian church. Christ’s disciples, as Jews, used to observe the Sabbath on Saturday – the seventh day of the week. But since Christ rose from the dead on Sunday – the first day of the week – early Christians marked the resurrection as a new creation, thereby transferring the day of rest from Saturday to Sunday.

Since all Sundays are considered holy days to commemorate Christ’s resurrection, the early church forbade fasting, kneeling and acts of sorrow on Sundays. This meant only 34 out of the 40 days before Easter were for fasting. In the fifth century, Christians wanted 40 full days of penance before Easter. To do that, they added Good Friday and Holy Saturday – to make 36 days. Within the next few centuries, Ash Wednesday was added. This included the Thursday, Friday and Saturday following, bringing the total fasting days to 40. Lent is a moveable season, meaning that it occurs on different dates each year.

What Is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is commonly associated with the Catholic Church. During services, priests place a cross of ashes on a worshipper’s forehead. This is meant to serve as a reminder of human mortality, repentance and a way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

“The ashes are made from the palms from the prior Palm Sunday,” Peter Barrett, parish administrator for St. Olaf’s Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, told CBS News.

The Catholic Church is not the only denomination to observe Ash Wednesday. Historically, the Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist churches also have practiced the ritual.

How Is Lent Related To Mardi Gras And Other World Carnivals?

Pre-Lenten festivals like Mardi Gras and other famous Carnivals held in Trinidad & Tobago, Venice and Rio de Janeiro are associated with celebrating before the season of fasting begins.

Carnivals were first celebrated in ancient Rome as pagan festivals to celebrate the onset of spring. Later, the Roman Catholic Church modified the festival into a celebration preceding Lent. This notion was spread to European colonies in the New World.