The first I knew of Ash Wednesday was the bushfires when I was a kid. I still remember the day, sitting in school and not doing much with the lights on low because it was like 40 degrees outside. This is still one of the worst recorded bushfires in Victoria. Anyway, for the longest time I thought it referred to that particular day, because of the ash that was created from the bushfires…apparently not. From Wikipedia:
In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It occurs forty-six days before Easter, but Lent is nevertheless considered forty days long, because Sundays in this period are not counted as days of penance.
At Masses and services of worship on this day, worshippers are blessed with ashes by the celebrating priest or minister. The priest or minister marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes, in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until washing it off after sundown. In many Christian churches, the minister of ashes may also be a layperson or non-clergyman. The symbolism echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ash over one’s head signifying repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister offers the worshipper an instruction while applying the ashes. These are three examples:
“Remember, man, that you are dust
And unto dust you shall return.”
This wording comes from Genesis 3:19.
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
“Repent, and hear the good news.”
The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations and mixing them with olive oil as a fixative. In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence (from meat), and repentance—a day of contemplating one’s transgressions. The ashes are sacramentals, not a sacrament. The Penitential psalms are read.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, which lasts until the Easter Vigil. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Many Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat, as are all Fridays in Lent. Many Catholics continue fasting during the whole of lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.