In the Old Testament, Ashes were clearly shown to express
grief (for example, 2 Samuel 13:19, Job 42:5-6, Daniel 9:3, 1 Maccabees 4:47). In Maccabees we can see for example:
"That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes"
Continuing into the Gospel, Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the practice in both Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13:
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
In the early church, both Tertullian and Esuebius wrote of the continued use of ashes. Eusbeius wrote that an apostate who had repented covered himself with ashes when begging Pope Zephyrinus to be readmitted to Holy Communion. Pope Gregory I the Great marked repentant sinners with a cross on their forehead with ashes, reminding them that from dust they were created and to dust they would return. In the late 8th century, writings from the Gregorian Sacramentary show that a practice of sprinkling ashes at the start of the Lenten feast was in place. At the council of Benevento in 1091, Pope Urban II extended the tradition in much of western Europe of distributing ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast to the Church in Rome. Officially it was marked in the liturgical books of the time as "Feria Quarta Cinerum". The words used when distributing the Ashes come from Genesis 3:19:
"Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris." ("Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.")
The 1969 revision makes explicit what was implicit in the old formula by changing the words to "Repent and believe in the Gospel".
As it begins the Lenten fast, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and devotion. Traditionally, the ashes used in the ceremony are blessed ashes from the burned palm leaves used in the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations.