Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 10 this year, and Christians all over the world will observe that date in preparation for Easter, which is the celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection.
Ash Wednesday "marks the start of the season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter."
"During this period, believers are encouraged to focus on spiritual renewal and reflect on Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins," writes Leah Marieann Klett, adding that Christians usually do so by going on fasting.
The Bible makes no specific mention of Ash Wednesday, but practices observed during the day such as mourning in sackcloth and ashes are found all throughout the Old and New Testaments.
In particular, Jonah 3:6 states: "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust."
The period of fasting for 40 days, on the other hand, is mentioned on Matthew 4, where Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean wilderness praying and fasting.
"Thus, the 40 days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan," explains Klett.
The act of placing ashes on the foreheads of believers is known as a sign of repentance and humility. Although it was originally observed by Roman Catholics, even Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations are now practicing it.
"Oftentimes, religious leaders will mark the foreheads of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, while speaking the words, 'For dust you are and to dust you shall return' (Genesis 3:19)," shares Klett. "Traditionally, worshippers choose to leave the ashes on their foreheads for the remainder of the day as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance, and that through Christ, all sins are forgiven through faith."
At the same time, ashes symbolise grief, so it's a good way of showing how remorseful people feel for sinning against God and causing a division from Him.
Usually, fasting requires observers to abstain from food. But nowadays, Christians make personal vows of abstinence, such as giving up meat, chocolate, or carbonated drinks. Some make a vow not to indulge in gossip or simply practice greater humility.