Ash Wednesday marks the start of observation of Lent - the most solemn time of the Christian Year. Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence: from the Middle Ages it became the custom to begin Lent by marking Christians with the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads. The season is traditionally marked by self-examination, fasting and preparation for Easter. It is a time when Christians reflect on the biblical account of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13).
It also became a time when those who were to be baptized at Easter were instructed in the Christian faith. It became customary for the whole Christian community to join them in study and self-reflection, through a period of forty days, corresponding to the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tested by Satan.
As Holy Week approaches, the atmosphere of the season darkens. Bible readings begin to anticipate the story of Christ's suffering and death. Holy Week begins with the re-enactment of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This is the beginning of a journey of the imagination which takes us to the Upper Room for the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, through Jesus' betrayal, trial and crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, is a day like no other, a day of desolation and despair. In the Easter Vigil, the Church gathers to call to mind the mighty works of God through reading of scripture, in preparation for the proclamation of the resurrection, which marks the beginning of the celebration of Easter.