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What is Ash Wednesday? Here鈥檚 what to know about the holy day marking the beginning of Lent

USA TODAY
Ash Wednesday kicks of Lent during Holy Week.

Lent is a 40-day season of prayer, fasting and giving that Catholics and some other Christian denominations observe as a time of repentance and closeness to God in preparation for the day of Christ's resurrection, celebrated on Easter.

Ash Wednesday is the kickoff of that season that is one of five on the Catholic liturgical calendar, along with Advent,聽Christmas,聽Easter, and .

That means you may see someone walking around with an ash cross on their forehead this Wednesday. Don't try to clean their forehead: Here's what it means and why the day figures so prominently in the Lenten season.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the liturgical season of聽Lent that falls six and half weeks before Easter each year.

Members of the Catholic Church聽ages 18 to 59 are required to observe Lent and fast on Ash Wednesday, starting at 14-years-old.

Ash Wednesday聽dates聽back to the 11th century, , but the tradition of marking one's forward with ashes is rooted in the ancient Hebrew custom of "clothing oneself in sackcloth and dusting oneself with ashes as a sign of penance," , an app for Catholic prayer and meditation.

When is Ash Wednesday 2024?

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14.

Why is Ash Wednesday important?

Ash Wednesday places Catholics and other denominations of faith in the place of Jesus鈥 entry into the desert before His death. It is a symbolic turning of one's heart towards God, recognizing the brokenness that exists and the need for salvation.

"Ash Wednesday is the perfect opportunity for us all to recommit to many of the things we know we need to do," Hallow CEO Alex Jones said.

For some, it could mean prayer and meditation, Jones added. For others, it could look like fasting food or social media.

"It might be serving at a local shelter or being more generous in our giving. Whatever it is, Lent is the perfect time to take just 40 days and commit to it," Jones said.

What do the ashes symbolize?

Woman with ash cross on forehead for Ash Wednesday.

The ashes symbolize our mortality.

On Ash Wednesday, you may see neighbors walking around with ash crosses on their foreheads.

During mass on this day, priests will add crosses made of ashes to foreheads reminding Catholics, but you do not need to be Catholic to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Other Christian denominations and even those disconnected from traditions of faith, sometimes observe.

When is Easter 2024?How its date is determined each year and why some celebrate.

Can you eat meat on Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two days of fasting and abstinence required by the Catholic Church, though Catholics are encouraged to abstain from meat on Fridays during the 40-day season of Lent.

Christ fasted in the desert for 40 days leading up to His death and resurrection, so believers choose to fast as well according to their own conviction in the days leading up to Easter. Fasting, just like ashes, is a sign of repentance and aims to stir up a spiritual hunger.

What is Lent?

Just as the four-week season of Advent prepares believers for Jesus鈥檚 birth at Christmas, the 40-day season of Lent prepares believers for Jesus' death and resurrection at Easter.

This time of sacrifice and repentance prepares the heart to receive the reconciliation that Christ offers. An individual gets to choose what they'd like to give up during the time of Lent, as Jones shared.

When does Lent start and end?

This year, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14) and ends on either March 29, Good Friday, or on March 30, "," the day before Easter, depending on the denomination.