What is Ash Wednesday?:
In Western Christendom, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and falls between February 4th and March 11th, 6 1/2 weeks before Easter. Early in Christian history the length of Lent varied, but in the 7th century it was fixed at 40 days as a reminder of the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert. Early penitents were sprinkled with ashes, wore sackcloth, and were required to remain apart from the rest of the community until they were reconciled on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.
Ashes on Ash Wednesday:
The most obvious mark of celebrating Ash Wednesday is the blessing and application of ashes to the foreheads of those who participate as a sign of penance. By the 11th century this custom had largely disappeared and was replaced with the distribution of ashes during the services and their application to the foreheads of all members of a congregation. Traditionally this is accompanied by Remember you are dust and will return to dust, but today Turn from sin and live the gospel is often used.
Ash Wednesday Today:
Christians are expected to engage in both fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday. Today only Roman Catholics continue with the tradition of applying ashes on Ash Wednesday, using the ashes created by the burning of palm fronds from the pervious Palm Sunday. There are special church services on Ash Wednesday in Anglican, Lutheran, and some other Protestant churches. Eastern Orthodox churches do not observe Ash Wednesday at all because their Lent begins on a Monday, known as Clean Monday.