Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically burnt palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday.
In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting, as well as "giving up" certain luxuries in order to "replicate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ's journey into the desert for 40 days." Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God.
The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ's carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics.
Ash Wednesday occurs 46 days before Easter. The day falls on a different date each year because Easter also occurs on different dates.
Why is it considered so important in the life of local Christians?
Essentially it mirrors the period Jesus spent in the desert before commencing his ministry. For many people from most religious traditions, periods of prayer, fasting and quiet meditation are an essential aspect of their faith life.
Contrary to some uninformed assertions Shrove Tuesday does not mark the start of Lent.
Shrove Tuesday is the last day of the liturgical season historically known as Shrovetide, before the penitential season of Lent, related popular practices, such as indulging in food that one sacrifices for the upcoming forty days, are associated with Shrove Tuesday celebrations, before commencing the fasting and religious obligations associated with Lent.