In the western church the first
day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday, so named because of the
ceremonial use of ashes, as a symbol of penitence, in the service prescribed
for the day.
The custom is still retained in the Roman Catholic
Church as well as the Anglican, Episcopal and Lutheran Church. The ashes,
obtained by burning the remains of the palm branches blessed on the
previous Palm Sunday, are placed in a vessel on the altar and consecrated
before High Mass. The priest then invites those present to approach
and, dipping his thumb in the ashes, marks them as they kneel with the
sign of the cross on the forehead, with the words: "Remember, man, thou
art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
This ceremony is derived from the custom of public
penance in the early church. When the custom was extended to the entire
congregation is not known, although it seems to have been in common
use by the late 10th century.