Ash Wednesday officially begins Lent and the Easter cycle on any date from February 4 to March 10, depending on the date of Easter. Ashes from burned palms saved from the previous year are placed on the forehead of parishioners. This custom of placing ashes on the heads of people and, originally, the wearing of sackcloth is an ancient penitential practice common among the Hebrew people (Jonah 3:5-9; Jeremiah 6:26, 25:34; Matthew 11:21). During the Middle Ages, emphasis was placed on personal rather than public sin. As a result traditions similar to those in today's parishes were observed throughout the Church by the 11th century. In recent years an alternate formula for the imposition of ashes emphasizes a more positive aspect of Lent: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel."
[Source: Supplement to the Sunday Bulletin of February 3, 2008; St. Paul Parish, Saskatoon, SK, Canada.]