In the Roman Catholic Church, Lent is the 40-day period of fasting, penance, almsgiving and prayer before Easter. It begins every year on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, which is the day before Easter Sunday. This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 5, 2014, and Holy Saturday is on April 19, 2014.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter. During Mass ashes are distributed, the priest dips his right thumb in the ashes, makes the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, and says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return".
The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were passed out on Palm Sunday the previous year. Some churches ask their parishioners to return any palms that they took home so that they can be burned.
The distribution of the ashes is to remind parishioners of their own mortality and it is a call to repentance. Many Catholics leave the ashes on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility.
When Lent begins, the faithful set spiritual goals they would like to reach before Easter and decide how to pursue them. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday gives followers guidelines for their 40 day journey as they ask for blessings upon their endeavors in the opening prayer at Mass,
"Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil. As we begin the discipline of Lent, make this season holy by our self-denial."
The liturgical season of Lent, since it coincides with spring, calls to mind new life, growth, and change. The faithful are invited us to start afresh. The word Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word lengthen or lencten meaning "spring."