Ash Wednesday officially begins Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Following the example of the Hebrew people (who did penance in sackcloth and ashes), our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. As the ashes are placed on our forehead in the form of a cross, we are told "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return."
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.
The Church has specified certain forms of penance to assist us in fulfilling God's plan:
Abstinence: Catholics 14 years of age and older are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all other Fridays of Lent. This means to not eat any form of meat — beef, pork or chicken, including items prepared with the juice of these meats, such as gravy and soup stocks.
Fasting: Catholics from age 18 – 59 are to fast on two days — Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On a day of fast, individuals are allowed one full meal and two smaller meals with no snacking in between meals.
Those who are excused from fast or abstinence: Individuals outside the age limits, the ill, pregnant or nursing women and manual laborers (according to need). There are other circumstances that may allow an individual to be excused from these rules. If in doubt, please seek the advice of your parish priest.
Personal Penance: Catholics are encouraged to impose some personal penance on themselves at other times. A person could, for example, increase the number of days they abstain or fast. The early Church had a practice of a Wednesday and Saturday fast. Such freely chosen fasting could also consist in giving up something one enjoys — such as candy, smoking, etc. On the Fridays outside of Lent the U.S. bishops obtained permission for Catholics to substitute a penitential, or even a charitable practice of their own choosing. For most people the easiest practice to consistently fulfill will be the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year.