For nearly a billion Christians, the weeks leading up to Easter are a time of fasting, solemn contemplation, and the giving up of certain luxuries and foods.
Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season on the liturgical calendar that represents a 40-day period, plus Sundays that are not counted.
There are many traditions and customs associated with Lent. Some, like Ash Wednesday's ash cross on the forehead and Catholics not eating meat on Fridays, are fairly well known.
Here are seven interesting facts about Lent. They include a ban on alleluia songs, a half-time celebration, and why many Protestants do not observe the season.
1. The Meaning of Ashes
Ash Wednesday worship involves church services where ashes are placed in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of worshipers. The practice is meant to stress mortality and penance.
The usage of ashes for these purposes has a long history in Judeo-Christian circles, as seen in the Old Testament when various figures would wear sackcloth and put ashes on their heads as a solemn call to repentance.
"This act symbolizes our mortality as well as our need for ongoing repentance. It is a reminder that this life is short and merely a foreshadowing of what we shall become through the redemption of Jesus Christ on the cross," explains catholic.org.
"The work of our redemption will not be complete until we are raised from the dead, in resurrected bodies like His own and called to the eternal communion of heaven."
2. Why People Give up Stuff for Lent
A common way Christians observe Lent is to give up something they like during the season. Popular options include soda, candy, television, drinking, or smoking.
According to a 2011 entry on the website "What's in the Bible?" this practice has a scriptural basis in Luke 9:23, which reads "Then he said to them all: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."
"So, essentially it's about self denial, carrying our cross and following Jesus. It is something that's done in a prayerful way, so that we can wholly renew ourselves in Christ," explains What's in the Bible.
3. 'Alleluia' Is Not Allowed During Lent
It is customary for churches observing Lent to refrain from having songs featuring the Hebrew phrase "Alleluia," translated as "Praise the Lord," during Lent.
According to an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America paper on worship, the custom of avoiding the usage of the word either in song or in statements goes back to the fifth century.
"Because of the penitential character of the season of Lent in the Western church, singing or saying the word 'alleluia' has historically been suspended during Lent's forty days," notes the ELCA.
"This period of individual and congregational reflection on the quality of our baptismal faith and life suggests that the joyful nature of alleluia is more appropriately reserved for our Easter celebrations when it is given full and jubilant voice."
4. Laetare Sunday
On the fourth Sunday of Lent, which is in the middle of the liturgical season, some churches observe a special date known as Laetare Sunday.
Deriving its name from "Laetare, Jerusalem" or "Rejoice, O Jerusalem," Laetare Sunday is known for being a lighter worship service, with a more upbeat and celebratory tone than other Lenten season Sundays.
"Laetare Sunday is the Church's way of giving us a 'shot in the arm' as we approach the darkness and horror of the days through Good Friday and Holy Saturday," noted one Catholic publication.
"It's an opportunity to savor and keep in the back of our minds what awaits us on Easter Sunday — the reality that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and that our hearts will always be filled with joy!"
5. Last Year's Palm Sunday Branches Used for Ashes
The ashes for Ash Wednesday are traditionally taken from palm branches that were used for the previous year's Palm Sunday, stressing the theme of mortality that the Lenten service holds.
The United Methodist Book of Worship notes that in addition to the palm branches from last year, the burned items for the ashes can also include a paper card with sins written on them.
"It is traditional to save the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday service to burn to produce ashes for this service. Sometimes a small card or piece of paper is distributed on which each person writes a sin or hurtful or unjust characteristic," notes the UMC resource.
"The cards are then brought to the altar to be burned with the palm branches. The ash cross on the forehead is an outward sign of our sorrow and repentance for sins."
6. Why Some Protestants Don't Celebrate
While Lent is commonly practiced among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant denominations, some churches, especially evangelicals, refuse to celebrate the liturgical season.
In a 2016 column, Southern Baptist Pastor Bart Barber explained that his objections to Lent centered on it not being in the Bible.
"Lent is not in the Bible, nor anything resembling it. Movement toward Lent is movement away from the idea that the New Testament should give us the pattern for ecclesiastical celebrations or individual spiritual formation," wrote Barber.
American Reformed Pastor R. Scott Clark argued in a blog entry that Lent is a man-made observance which, even though it may have good intentions, has become theologically problematic.
"It is not that one might not learn something valuable by abstaining from this or that for 40 days or that there is no value in gathering on Wednesday 40 days before Easter to remember the suffering and death of our Savior," wrote Clark.
"The problem is that the human heart is an idol factory (Calvin). Once it is given license to create and impose Christian observances, it never ends. What begins with good intentions becomes a form of bondage."
7. Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day Coincide This Year
2018 has the rare occurrence of the solemn Ash Wednesday falling on Feb. 14, the same date as the more joyful and upbeat St. Valentine's Day observance.
Father Al Baca, executive director of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Department, told The Christian Post in a statement that Ash Wednesday is supposed to be practiced over Valentine's Day due to the former having "more spiritual significance for the Catholic community."
"St. Valentine is much more a secular observance today with the martyr's life/death obscured by young couple's love, chocolate, etc.," stated Baca.
"Ash Wednesday would take precedence because it is the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, even if St. Valentine was being celebrated on Feb. 14 in the Church's calendar. Some dioceses are asking people to observe St. Valentine this year on the Vigil, Feb. 13. That way both days can be honored with their integrity intact."