Today marks the start of the holy season of Lent.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the forty days of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.
It occurs 46 days before Easter (the six Sundays, which commemorate Christ's resurrection, are excluded) and derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday, and placing them on the foreheads of the faithful.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter.
The act of putting on ashes symbolizes 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.
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.