Many churches around the world celebrated Ash Wednesday on March 5, 2014. I attended service at St. Vincent Ferrer in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines. Although parts of the service, including the homily, were in Visayan, I nevertheless felt a sense of the presence of the holy and those in attendance were attentive and responsive even if the service was rather long, coming in at a little over two hours, and it was most definitely the longest homily I have heard from a Catholic priest in my many years of attending Mass. Part of the problem was that a Healing Mass was combined with the Ash Wednesday service and no doubt this contributed to the length of the service as well as its incongruency.
Ash Wednesday begins the 40 days of Lent, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter (the six Sundays are not counted as these are "feast days"). The day comes after what is variously called Mardi Gras and Carnival around the world where many engage in festive activities before entering the Lenten period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
The imposition of ashes is a symbolic act signifying that the person is in a state of repenting of his/her sins as well as the transitory nature of life. "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return."