Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is the day after Mardi Gras begins. It begins with a church service where Christians think about their mortality. They also repent of their sins and return their focus to a loving God. They work at recognizing life for the gift that it is.
Many Christians during Lent make certain resolutions or commitments to change their lives over the forty days that are to follow. They may decide to go to daily mass or to give up something that they love. As a child, the first thing that I gave up for Lent was ice cream. The Monday after Easter, I was found sitting on the curb waiting for the ice cream man to arrive in his truck!!!
The ashes on Ash Wednesday are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality is illustrated when a person dies and becomes dirt, ash or dust. Repentance is illustrated by the old custom of putting ashes on the head and wearing scratchy clothing (sackcloth) to remind the wearer that sin is uncomfortable and leads to death of the spirit. It was a way of showing remorse for sin.
Each year, ashes from the palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday are burned, mixed with a little water (symbolizing tears) or oil. On Ash Wednesday, the prepared ashes are placed in the shape of a cross on the forehead by a minister or priest.
Lent is a good time to periodically fast, perform service and pray. It is a time for renewal and drawing closer to Jesus Christ. It is practiced in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and by many Protestant denominations worldwide.