Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular holy days in the liturgical calendar. Ash Wednesday opens Lent, a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, and is chiefly observed by Catholics, although many other Christians observe it too.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead, he speaks the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Alternatively, the priest may speak the words, "Repent and believe in the Gospel."
Ashes also symbolize grief, in this case, grief that we have sinned and caused division from God. Writings from the Second-century Church refer to the wearing of ashes as a sign of penance.
Priests administer ashes during Mass, and all are invited to accept the ashes as a visible symbol of penance. The ashes are made from blessed palm branches, taken from the previous year's Palm Sunday Mass. Ashes are a Sacramental, not a Sacrament.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence, which for a Catholic means one full meat-free meal, and two smaller meat-free meals that together add up to less than the full meal. No snacking is permitted during the day, but liquids can be taken between meals (just not things such as milkshakes and smoothies, which are more like food and less like drinks). Fasting is required for Catholics from age eighteen through fifty-nine who are not ill, pregnant, or nursing.
This week on Ash Wednesday strive to attend Mass, receive Ashes, and write down what you would like to give up and take up for Lent. During Lent just as we are called to give up something, it is also a good practice to take up a new habit or good practice during Lent.
Below is a good format to follow.
This Lent I will strive each day
To do LESS _____________________
To do MORE ___________________________
NEVER to _________________________________
ALWAYS to _____________________________________
For example: To do LESS arguing; to do MORE reading; NEVER to stay up past 11:00pm; ALWAYS say the Angelus.
Resources from: Catholic Online; The Catholic All Year Compendium