Yes, it’s very much Old Testament-y!
The people of Nineveh performed penance in sackcloth and ashes after Jonah delivered God’s message to them.
Job scattered ash on his food when everything he possessed was taken from him.
The early Church adopted the Jewish custom of ash as an external symbol of penance or grief:
In the Old Law ashes were generally a symbolic expression of grief, mourning, or repentance. In the Early Church the use of ashes had a like signification and with sackcloth formed part of the public penances.
—The Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962
So why ash?
Ash represents our mortality; just as ashes are the remains of wood consumed by fire, so our bodies will be reduced to dust after we die. We recall our mortality to practice humility, reminding ourselves of our extreme lowliness and the brevity of earthly life.
Traditionally, the forty days of Lent represent Our Lord’s forty-day fast in the desert. For us, the forty days mark a period of penance and prayer as we accompany Our Lord on the road leading to His Passion.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the cross of ash upon our foreheads to remind us that we ought to repent of our sins, especially during the Lenten season.
Ash Wednesday is here. The season of penance has begun. How are you going to observe Lent this year? Do you need a practical, personal guide on how to have a fruitful Lenten season? Our digital series, A Holy Lent, is just what you need to keep you focused and give you clear goals to attain each day. It’s a spiritual retreat that taps into the rich graces of the Lenten season with reflections, prayers, to-dos, and much more. Sign up today at Good Catholic.com!