One of the fun parts of Ash Wednesday is comparing your ashes to everyone else’s.
“Did you get a good cross?”
“I got a big one!”
“Mine’s just a smudge…”
It’s also energizing to see total strangers walking down the street and knowing—by their dusty forehead—that they are united with you in the observance of this holy day and season.
Catholics first started putting ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday at least as early as the 8th century, when the practice can be found in the Gregorian Sacramentary (a book with directives for the liturgy). That’s simply the earliest recorded date for doing so—it’s likely a much earlier tradition.
Long before that, donning sackcloth (a coarse animal hair shirt) and ashes was a Jewish penitential practice. We see it many times in the Old Testament.
For example, in the book of Jonah, the King of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes when Jonah prophesies the destruction of the city.
Our Lord refers to this practice in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Woe to you, Chora′zin! woe to you, Beth-sa′ida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
So the practice of wearing ashes really goes back thousands of years. The words that the priest says as he marks our forehead go back even further than that:
“Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
This phrase is almost a direct quote from the Book of Genesis, when God pronounces the punishment for the sin of Adam:
“…In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Here at the beginning of Lent, it is most fitting that we should recall the origin of our sinfulness. These forty days are a preparation for the holiest time of the year, the Sacred Triduum, wherein we commemorate the sacrifice of the New Adam, Who came to wash away the mark of our sin in His own Blood, and Who went down to the dust to raise us up from it.
If, like many of us, you’ve been caught unawares by Lent and haven’t yet come up with a plan of action, we’ve got you covered. Sign up for A Holy Lent, the new series launching today at Good Catholic. With an easy-to-follow itinerary for every day, this series will guide you step-by-step through this holy season and help you make the most of it. Sign up today at Good Catholic.com!