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Ash Wednesday’s changing tradition

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 18: Cardinal Donald Wuerl places ashes on the foreheads of Catholics during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle February 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics around the globe observe the beginning of Lent and observe the date with fasting and receiving ashes on their foreheads in the Sign of the Cross as a symbol of penance and conversion. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — Are you ready to give up caffeine for 40 days? What about your social media accounts? While giving up those things may seem hard for you, Christians long ago used to give up a whole lot more.

Ash Wednesday is today. It marks the first day of Lent in Western churches. The ashes symbolize penance and the dust from which God made people.

When priests mark Christian’s forehead with the ashes they often say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Lent, which lasts 40 days not including Sundays, is a season of prayer, penance and fasting in preparation for the Easter season.

But the tradition has changed throughout the years. It’s less strict than it used to be.

By the dates

  • Ash Wednesday: February 26
  • Palm Sunday: April 5
  • Good Friday: April 10
  • Holy Saturday: April 11
  • Easter: April 12

How fasting has changed

Christians started to fast during Lent in the 5th-9th century. They made it a tradition to remember and reflect on Jesus Christ’s fasting in the wilderness.

Back then, they stuck to a strict tradition. People were forbidden to eat meat and fish and had to eat one meal a day.

Many Christians still fast today, but it’s a lot different.

Instead, they give up watching TV, their social media accounts, drinking soda, alcohol or other pleasurable activities until the fasting ends on Holy Saturday.

How the ashes are made

Christians celebrate Palm Sunday as Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion.

They hand out palm leaves to people who attend church and some palms are saved and burnt into ashes so it can be used for next year’s Ash Wednesday.

In the Eastern Church, Lent begins on the Monday of the seventh week before Easter (February 24 this year) and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday.

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