Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, celebrated next on March 5, 2014. The name “Ash Wednesday” comes from the blessed ashes that are applied to the forehead of the faithful who receive them as a sign of the beginning of the season of Lent, the season of penance and preparation for Easter.
Being marked with ashes is a public acknowledgement that one is a sinner, as we all are.
Ash Wednesday History
In the fourth century, public penitents dressed in sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes to show their repentance. The practice of public penance gradually fell into disuse from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Our current celebration of Ash Wednesday began to develop in the eleventh century where it had become customary to receive ashes at the beginning of Lent. The Christian use of ashes is rooted in the Jewish custom of sprinkling ashes on the head as a sign of repentance.
Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation although it is a spiritually and liturgically significant celebration which sets the penitential tone for the next six weeks before Easter.
Significance of Ashes
The ashes are a symbol of penance and reconciliation, which are used in the Catholic Church not only on Ash Wednesday, but also in the rite for the consecration of an altar and the dedication of a church. The ashes are the burnt palms used on Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday of the previous year. Many parishes allow for you to bring back your palms so that they may be used on the next Ash Wednesday.
Distribution of Ashes
On Ash Wednesday, ashes may be distributed during Mass, usually after the homily, or outside of Mass. When done outside of Mass ashes are distributed as part of a Liturgy of the Word. Ashes are typically placed on ones forehead in the shape of a cross. The traditional formula for placing the ashes on the forehead is, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust,” however, “Turn away from sin and live the gospel” is typically what is said today. Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence from meat.