Ash Wednesday, which occurs 46 days before Easter, is the first day of the Lenten season. It marks a religious period of fasting and abstinence. Also known as the 'Day of Ashes', on this day, the forehead of adherents and faithful is marked with ashes in the shape of a cross as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. This day is most commonly observed by Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Lutherans. It is a movable fast which falls on a different date each year depending on the date of Easter.
Foreheads of adherents are marked with a cross symbolizing that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who was crucified on a cross. Ashes are a sign of humility, mortality, sorrow and repentance for sin. The priest or minister says one or both of the following when applying the ashes:
'Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return' (Genesis3:19)
'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.' (Mark1:15)
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are burnt palm leaves which are used to celebrate Palm Sunday the previous year. These leaves signify that though people in Jerusalem rejoiced Jesus' entrance to their city by waving palm fronds, He had come to die for human race. Thus, using palms from last years Palm Sunday, signifies that Jesus' arrival is not only to be rejoiced but should also be regretted because of the fact that Jesus had to die to save us from hell.
Ash Wednesday was admitted into the church beliefs a few hundred years after Christ.
Biblical References -
Dust and ashes are mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Some of the biblical references to the practice of using dust to express mourning and repentance are -
In Job 42:3–6, Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
The prophet Jeremiah, called for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26)
"On the third day a man arrived from Saul's camp, with his clothes torn and with dust on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground to pay him honor." (2 Samuel 1:20)
The prophet Daniel pleaded for God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of Israel's repentance: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Dn 9:3)
Ash Wednesday is not a day of holy obligation but still most of the Roman Catholics attend mass and the priests sprinkle ashes on the faithful. This ceremony is said to have originated in the 8th century when people practiced humbling themselves with sackcloth and ashes.
In Catholic churches, sacramental ashes can be received by all those who wish. This is an exception to other sacramentals that are reserved only for church members. In other Christian denominations, ashes can be received by all who are baptized and have a Christian faith.
Dusting oneself with ashes is regarded to be a way of expressing sorrow for one's faults and sins. Proceedings on this day encourage fast, prayer and seeking repentance over the next month.