In the Western church, the first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday, derived from the ceremonial use of ashes as a symbol of penitence in the service prescribed for the day. It follows Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday, and ends with Easter 40 days later, not counting Sundays.
It is practiced by Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican denominations, Roman Catholics, and some Baptists. The Eastern Church practices the Great Lent during the 40 days preceding Palm Sunday, with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. The ash represents repentance and a reminder of death. The 40 days represent the duration of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
The ashes, obtained by burning the remains of the palm branches blessed on the previous Palm Sunday, are placed in a vessel on the altar and consecrated before High Mass. The priest then invites those present to approach and, dipping his thumb in the ashes, marks them as they kneel with the sign of the cross on the forehead, with words from Genesis 3:19:
Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
Background of Ash Wednesday
This ceremony is derived from the custom of public penance in the early church. Initially, for converts wishing to be baptized into the church, they fasted for 40 hours before Easter when many baptisms were performed. These 40 hours signify the equivalent number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting at the beginning of his public ministry in Israel.
This practice later became a 40-day period of prayer, self-examination, contemplation, and, in some cases, fasting. When the custom was extended to the entire congregation is unknown, although it seems to have been in common use by the late 10th or 11th century, at least in the Western church.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian