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Things to Know About Ash Wednesday

What is Ash Wednesday?
It is the day that Lent begins on which the faithful have blessed ashes distributed on their foreheads.  Ashes are made from the olive branches or branches of other trees that were blessed the previous year during Palm or Passion Sunday.1
What does the putting on of ashes symbolize?
The beginning of the forty days of penance in the Roman Rite is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  It is an ancient rite which converted sinners submitted themselves to penance, symbolizing fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.  Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent.2
How does the distribution of ashes take place?
After the homily, the priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water.  Those present who come to him the priest will say:
Repent, and believe the Gospel.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Is there a particular way the ashes should be put on people's heads?
It largely depends on local custom.  Some countries the prevailing custom seems to be that the priest places enough holy water into the ashes to form a kind of paste. The ashes are then daubed in the form of a cross on the forehead while others the sprinkling fairly dry ashes on the crown of the head.3
Can this be done outside of Mass?
Blessing and distribution of ashes may also take place outside Mass.  The rite is preceded by a Liturgy of the Word, with the Entrance Antiphon, the Collect, and the readings with their chants as at Mass.  Then the homily and the blessing and distribution of ashes.  It will be concluded with the Universal Prayer, the Blessing, and the Dismissal of the Faithful.
Can someone other than a priest distribute the ashes?
The blessing of the ashes is reserved to a priest or deacon and may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of ashes.
How long do you leave the ashes on?
It is a matter of personal decision based on the individual's own inclinations and circumstances.  The ashes can be left on until they wear off naturally or they can be washed off or wiped off when the individual chooses.
Can ashes be distributed to the sick who cannot attend Mass?
It may also be used when ashes are brought to the sick.  The rite may be abbreviated by the minister, nevertheless, at least one Scripture reading should be included in the service.  If already blessed ashes are brought to the sick, the blessing is omitted and the distribution takes place immediately after the homily.
Is Ash Wednesday a Holyday of Obligation?
It is not an obligation to attend the Mass, however, Ash Wednesday is a penitential day and it (together with Good Friday) is one of two days of the year on which fasting and abstinence are required.

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"To condescend to the humblest duties, and to devote oneself to the lowliest service is an exercise of humility: for thus one is able to heal the disease of pride and human glory."

- Decretal on Penance (D. II., cap. Si quis semel)