What Is Ash Wednesday?
The Christian season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days. Catholics and members of some Protestant denominations are asked to do modest mortifications and acts of penance during Lent for the purification of the body and soul. Lent is a time of confession, fasting, abstinence, prayer, Bible and spiritual reading, and spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It culminates at Easter when Christ rose triumphant from the dead.
The tradition of Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church is a poignant reminder that our bodies will die someday and turn to dust. A priest places ashes on parishioners' foreheads to remind them of their mortality and the need for repentance. The words spoken as the ashes are imposed on the forehead are from Genesis 3:19: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." So ashes on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, are religious reminders, just like holy water and palms on Palm Sunday.
Catholics are also expected to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday.