Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lenten season.
While yesterday millions of people celebrated "Fat Tuesday," "Mardi Gras" or "Doughnut Day," today begins a 40-day period of prayer, fasting and sacrifice that leads to the great vigil of Easter, which this year will be celebrated on April 4.
On Ash Wednesday in many churches, statues and crosses are covered in purple a color that not only symbolizes the pain and suffering of Jesus Christ as he was crucified it is also the color of royalty, and symbolizes the coming Resurrection to be celebrated on Easter Sunday.
Christians all over the world today will receive the imposition of ashes. This sign of baptism reminds them that Lent is a time of baptismal renewal. On Easter Sunday, Catholics will renew the sacrament of baptism as part of the Easter Mass.
Ashes used in this rite are made from the burnt palms that were left over from palms that were distributed on Palm Sunday last year. They are mixed with a small amount of oil and blessed before they are applied to the forehead of worshippers in the sign of the cross.
Ashes are referred to often in the Bible as a sign of sorrow and mourning, and on Ash Wednesday, they are used to remind people of their mortality, as in the Bible it says "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
While Lent is known as a period of self-denial, clergy today are also encouraging their parishioners to use it as a time for good works to help others. Money saved by eating a meat-free meal once or twice during the week, could be donated to those less fortunate.
During Lent, many Christians fast on certain days and abstain from eating meat on Fridays. These sacrifices help remind the faithful of the poor. Fasting is believed to lead to better self-control, which is often considered an aid to prayer.
Special Lenten services and gatherings will be offered during the 40-day period, as well as Stations of the Cross, which mimic the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Near the end of Lent, Christians celebrate Passion (Palm) Sunday, where they receive the blessed palms, symbolic of the palms that were waved as Jesus rode a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.
The days following lead to the holiest day on the Christian calendar, beginning with Holy Thursday. In the Catholic Church, a Mass of the Lord's Supper is celebrated in the evening, during which time the priest will participate in the washing of the feet, a ritual reminiscent of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.
On Good Friday, Christians remember the day that Jesus was crucified. It is a somber day and often one of quiet reflection.
On Saturday evening many Christians will attend Easter vigil services, remembering the resurrection of Jesus.
On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate and revel in the Resurrection of Jesus, and renew their baptismal vows.