Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent traditionally observed 46 days before Easter. It has no definite date and can fall any time from February 4 to March 10 depending on the liturgical calendar for the year. It also marks the beginning of the period of prayer and fasting in relation to Jesus’ 40-day fasting in the desert.
The ashes imposed on the forehead of the faithful come from palms used for the previous years burned specifically for Ash Wednesday. The day of the burning of the palms that occurs before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday. Shrove comes from the word shrive which means to confess or obtain absolution for sin. Ash signifies repentance for transgressions.
During early times, the ashes were scattered on the head as a sign for sorrow of sins and faults. Other Christian denominations also observe Ash Wednesday with a specific service including the Baptist, Methodist, Lutherans , and Anglicans. The Catholic Church considers ashes used for this day as a sacramental and not a sacrament and therefore can be imposed on anyone who wishes to receive them as opposed to the sacraments which can only be given to church members.
The words used by the priest or minister who imposes the ashes can either be “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. Since Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance, confession is also made available while the service is being provided. The recipients of the imposed ashes are expected to retain the mark until they wear off.