Why Do Catholics Put Ashes on Their Foreheads? *
Job’s contemporaries would have immediately recognized the meaning of some of his behaviors that seem strange to us today: tearing his cloak, shaving off his hair, prostrating himself on the ground, sitting amidst ashes (see Jb 1:20-21; 2:8). Many ancient cultures interpreted all these actions as gestures of mourning. They were an exterior form of expression for an interior grief.
Sometimes the mourning ritual reflected sorrows over personal loss, as it did at first in Job’s case. He had just received terrible news about several calamities, including the sudden death of all his children (see Jb 1:13-19).
At other times, these were gestures of remorse—that is, of sorrow over sin. In this case, the wearing of sackcloth and ashes in particular became a common ritual of penance before God and petition for his forgiveness and help (see Dn 9:3). Job later used ashes in this way as well, when he felt sorrow for questioning God and decided to “repent in dust and ashes” (Jb 42:6).
The Catholic Church maintains a token of this moving ancient custom as an element of the rite for Ash Wednesday. On this day, the first day of the penitential season of Lent (see “Why Do Catholics Observe Lent?”), Catholics express remorse for their sins. The blessed palm branches used in the festive Palm (or Passion) Sunday procession of the year before have been dried and burned, and the ashes are then blessed. Joy gives way to sorrow, then, as the priest imposes the ashes on each penitent’s forehead—a form of sacramental (see “Who Do Catholics Use Holy Water?”)
Why are the ashes such an appropriate expression of penance? Because they are “dirty.” They humble us by reminding us that however proud we may be of ourselves, our accomplishments, and our possessions, in the end (as the words of the Ash Wednesday rite recall), we are dirt, and to dirt we shall return (see Gn 3:19). At the same time, having dirty faces reminds us that the sin stains us, and we need to be cleansed of it through God’s grace (se Ps 51:3-5, 9, 11-12).
Other related scriptures: Gn 37:34; 44:13; Jgs 11:35; 1 Sm 4:12; 2 Sm 1:2, 11; 13:31; 1 Kgs 21:27; 2 Kgs 2:12; 5:7-8; 6:30; 11:14; 22:11; 2 Chr 23:13; 34:19, 27; Est 4:1-8; Ps 102:10; Is 58:5; 61:2-3; Jer 6:26; 25:34; 36:24; Ez 26:16; Jl 2:12-13; Jon 3:6-10; Mt 11:21; Lk 10:13.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 540; 1430-1439; 1667-1671; 2043.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com #I-3
Additional insights at: www.catholic.com
COMMENTARY: Ash Wednesday is a great way to kick off Lent. I prefer the traditional words which the priest used when administering the ashes: "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." This is a frank reminder that all of us will face death one day. The Church encourages us to pray, fast, and give alms especially during Lent. Doing so helps us improve ourselves so that we can be better Christians when Easter arrives. Carrying on these practices beyond Lent will help us to be good sons and daughters when we return to Our Father.