I found this over on Intrepid Lutherans, the WELS blog. Here is a letter from a pastor talking the Imposition of Ashes at his church on Ash Wednesday
Dear Christian Friends,
The Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent marks the beginning of this season of the Church Year. Lent is the Christian’s forty-day journey with the Lord to the cross and tomb, preparing for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The forty days are reminiscent of several biblical events: Moses’ stay on Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law, Elijah’s fast on his way to the mountain of God, and Jesus’ forty-day fast at the beginning of His ministry, among others. The forty days are counted backward from Resurrection Sunday. Since all regular Sunday worship services are an observance of Christ’s resurrection, and thus occasions for reverent joy, the Sundays during this period are not counted in the forty days of more somber remembrance of Christ’s Passion. This also explains why this season begins on a Wednesday.
In addition, for more than nineteen centuries the Christian believer’s Lenten journey has begun with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance through the placing of ashes on one’s head (Genesis 18:27, Job 42:6, Jeremiah 6:26, Matthew 11:21). Ashes are a sign of spiritual cleansing, as in the Rite of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:17), in which the ashes of the calf, when mixed with water, had the ceremonial effect of purifying the sinner. (Hebrews 9:13). Thus, the first New Testament believers adopted the use of ashes as a symbol of sorrow and repentance over sin. This has been the normal practice of the Christian Church from the First Century onward.
It is this ancient practice of placing ashes on the heads of the faithful that gives Ash Wednesday its name. The ashes are a strong reminder of the need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and the redeeming grace of Christ. Indeed, we remember well the words from the Christian burial service: “. . . earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . . ;” words that will someday be spoken over us all.
The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusive practice of the Roman church. It was already being practiced hundreds of years before the church of Rome gained its current prominence. Today it is observed by faithful Believers in many Christian churches throughout the world.
Thus, Trinity Orthodox Lutheran Church in Sierra Vista has incorporated the practice of “The Imposition of Ashes” into its observance of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.
The ashes for this ceremony are taken from the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. These palms are gathered, burned, and then sifted, and placed in a shallow dish for the imposition. After a brief introduction, the minister marks a cross of ashes on each person’s forehead as they stand or kneel at the entrance to the church’s altar area.
At 6 AM on Ash Wednesday, during the Noon hour, and again that evening, about fifteen minutes before the Communion Service, people are invited to the Sanctuary for the Imposition of Ashes. This ceremony is intended as a meaningful and useful physical aid in each individual believer’s spiritual preparation for and observance of Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, Holy Week, and ultimately the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. If there are any questions about The Imposition of Ashes, please do not hesitate to ask.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Your shepherd under Christ,
For an Ash Wednesday service and prayers, see Intrepid Lutherans.