Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a season in the western Christian tradition that prepares the worshipper for the celebration of Easter. Lent lasts for six weeks, and is usually considered a time of repentance, spiritual discipline, and an intensified focus on the way of Christ. It is modeled on Jesus' forty-day fast, as described in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13.
The date is calculated by counting back forty-six days from Easter, therefore it is a moveable holy day. The night before is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, and is a time of revelry before the austerities of Lent begin.
Ash Wednesday services are held in many liturgical churches in the Christian community. During the service, ashes are used to draw crosses on each worshipper's forehead. The ashes are traditionally made by burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. As the priest or pastor imposes the ashes, this, or some similar admonition, is intoned: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19).
Read Patheos articles on Ash Wednesday: