Today is Ash Wednesday and it is given this name to reflect upon the importance of public penitance. Christians usually mark this as the beginning of the pre-Easter penitential season we call Lent.
According to an essay by Karl-Heinrich Bieritz in Religion Past and Present, the Roman Catholic Church applies ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead, and follows this with a blessing. This is done in the mass after the Gospel and Homily. Protestant churches may vary in the service order, but this is generally done as part of a congregational confession.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia writes that it is thought that Christian liturgical usage of ashes may be taken from Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Bible depicts the use of ashes to signify mortality, sorrow and repentance. The Roman Catholic tradition uses ashes ceremonially only on Ash Wednesday and in the rite of dedication for a church (when ashes are mixed with water, wine, and salt according to an 8th-century tradition).
We have a number of Lenten devotionals to help guide you in this season. Here are a few:
Burridge, Richard A.
Faith Odyssey: A Journey Through Lent
Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2001.
Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God:
An Introduction and Devotional Guide.
Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009.
Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death and Resurrection
of Jesus as Recorded in Mark.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.
Reflecting the Glory: Meditations for Living Christ’s Life in the World.
Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1998.