Millions of people worldwide attended Ash Wednesday services, including hundreds in Los Banos. The observance marked the first day of Lent, the 40-day period -- not including Sundays -- of fasting, prayer and repentance leading up to Easter, which is March 31.
The tradition is most often observed by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, although other denominations sometimes hold services.
Catholic services in Los Banos, which consisted of singing, readings, prayer and communion, were conducted in Spanish and English.
The ashes are placed on the forehead in the sign of a cross as a mark of repentance and a reminder of mortality, as the clergy quotes the biblical phrase from Genesis, "Remember, man is dust, and unto dust you shall return." The 40-day period comes from the biblical account when Jesus fasted for 40 days to resist the devil's temptations in the wilderness.
Lent and Ash Wednesday are not mentioned in the Bible, although the use of ashes and sackcloth are referred to in the Old and New Testaments as signs of repentance. Church scholars say the first clear instructions of Ash Wednesday came from an Anglo-Saxon abbot named Aelfric (955-1020), who wrote that saints who "repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies in sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."
In the 12th century, the practice began of making the ashes by burning palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday services.
The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is Feb. 4 (with Easter on March 22), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date is March 10 (when Easter falls on April 25), which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. It has never fallen on Leap Year Day (Feb. 29).