“Of all acts of man repentance is the most divine. The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.” - Thomas Carlyle
Today is Ash Wednesday, which in the Western Christian churches marks the first day of the season of Lent. Lent begins 40 days prior to Easter (with Sundays not included in the count). Lent is when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. In many cases, this has been reduced to a symbolic act where one consciously gives up something they enjoy: “I’m not having any chocolate for Lent” or “I’m going to become a vegetarian for the Lent period”.
In church, during some Ash Wednesday masses or services, the priest will lightly rub the sign of the cross with ashes onto the foreheads of worshipers. Ash Wednesday and Lent are mostly observed by the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations, but also most importantly by the Roman Catholics. The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning rituals with ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
Eastern Orthodox churches observe the Great Lent, during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter, bringing the Lenten period to seven weeks. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches begins on Monday (called “Clean Monday”) and Ash Wednesday is not observed. This year, the beginning of the Great Lent for Orthodox churches is on the 27th February. The Greek Orthodox church calls the Great Lent “Megále Saracosté” to distinguish it from the Lesser Lent, which is observed before Christmas.
The discrepancy in the start of Lent between Western and Eastern churches occurs as the Orthodox faith follows a modified Julian calendar to establish the date of Easter each year and Easter must fall after Passover, so it does not always or often coincide with the date of Easter in other faiths, which is calculated according to the Gregorian Calendar. In 2012, Western Church Easter is celebrated on the 8th April, while the Eastern Church celebrates Easter the following Sunday, April 15th.