A: Within Mass, the rite for the blessing and distribution of ashes is specific to a liturgical day: “In the course of today’s Mass ashes are blessed and distributed” (Roman Missal). The rite outside Mass is also linked to Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent and the Church’s entering into a public fast that particularly characterizes the first day of Lent. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy describes the relationship between ashes, penance, and the beginning of the Lenten discipline:
“In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday. The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. 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” (125; emphasis added).
The Ceremonial of Bishops puts it this way: “On Ash Wednesday, a universal day of fast, ashes are distributed…. In this sign [of ashes] we outwardly profess our guilt before God and thereby, prompted by the hope that the Lord is kind and compassionate…, express our desire for inward conversion.” On Ash Wednesday we are, as the Church, observing a day of fasting and abstinence that is particularly public in character, of which the ashes are an external sign. While ashes might be employed by the faithful as a devotional practice on other days, the liturgical blessing and imposition of ashes is tied to Ash Wednesday itself.