Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. It is the first day of Lent and occurs forty-six days (not counting Sundays) before Easter.
Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. Ashes are still placed on the penitent's forehead during the service of worship or Mass, usually in the shape of a cross, after being blessed by the minister or priest.
In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 is especially associated with this day.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
Surely I have been a sinner from birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not caste me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways
and sinners will turn back to you.
Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then there will be righteous sacrifices,
whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The service often includes a corporate confession rite. In some churches, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as ways of symbolizing confession and penitence. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.
Many devout faithful fast on Ash Wednesday and choose to "give up" something during the Lenten period as a way to show penitence. A newer tradition is to work on self improvement during this time rather than sacrifice.
Roman Catholics fast often during Lent and do not eat meat on Fridays. In Victorian England, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday.
Did you recognize the day of penitence, Ash Wednesday?
"Bless me Father, for I have sinned..."
Ashes to Ashes - song: Ashes to Ashes, artist: David Bowie, album: Scary Monsters