Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter. While Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, all Roman Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on this day in order to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.
After the priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water, the faithful come forward to receive them. The priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person’s forehead, says, “Remember, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (or a variation on those words).
The distribution of ashes reminds us of our own mortality and calls us to repentance. In the early Church, Ash Wednesday was the day on which those who had sinned, and who wished to be readmitted to the Church, would begin their public penance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness, and many Catholics leave them on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility.
The Church emphasizes the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday by calling us to fast and abstain from meat. This is not simply a form of penance. It is also a call for us to take stock of our spiritual lives. As Lent begins, hopefully we find ways to increase our spiritual life as we proceed through the “forty days.”