Today February 22, is Ash Wednesday. In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption. It is always observed by all Roman Catholics.
Why we receive the ashes? “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.
At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the sign of the cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off.