On this day, ashes are blessed and applied to the foreheads of the
faithful as a sign of penance.
In the fourth century, public penitents
dressed in sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes to show their repentance.
The practice of public penance gradually died out. By the eleventh century, it had
become customary for the faithful to receive ashes at the beginning of Lent, the season of
penance in preparation for the celebration of Easter. On Ash Wednesday, ashes may be distributed
during Mass, usually after the homily, or outside of Mass; in the latter case, the distribution takes
place as part of a Liturgy of the Word. The traditional formula for the placing of ashes on the
forehead is, "Remember you are dust and will return to dust." The formula "Turn from sin and live
the gospel" is frequently used today. In the Roman calendar, Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence.