Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent is the forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. The number forty is significant as it refers to Jesus’ forty days in the desert prior to beginning his ministry of teaching.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and some other Christian denominations receive ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead or sprinkled on top of their head. These ashes are created from the palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday Mass. They symbolize penance, which is appropriate as Lent is a season of penance, and remind us of our own mortality. During the liturgy (usually Mass but it doesn’t have to be), as the priest or lay minister applies the ashes, they say a short prayer. Often this is “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Anyone who attends the Ash Wednesday Liturgy can receive the ashes.