Why do Catholics get ashes on their forehead?


“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Catholic church observes Ash Wednesday, on March 1st this year. The Ash Wednesday observation begins the forty-day season called Lent which precedes the celebration of Easter, Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The Forty Days are symbolically observed by the Church and are followed by the Three Days of the Triduum, from Holy Thursday evening, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and through Easter Sunday.

Ashes are a symbol of penance by the blessing of the Church, and come from a ceremony of past times when Christians who had committed grave faults were given public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop would bless the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, the sinners were turned out of the church because of their sins — and not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday (known today as Holy Thursday) after having won reconciliation by forty days’ penance. This tradition revolved to later Christians, who came to receive ashes out of devotion and to be reminded that we are from dust and to dust we shall return.

The ashes are still made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by incense. They are administered by the priest, deacons and lay ministers on Ash Wednesday in the shape of a cross to foreheads of the church community. They are marked with ashes to remind humble hearts that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

The Teutonic word, Lent, which denotes the forty days’ fast preceding Easter, originally meant the spring season. It has been taken from the Anglo-Saxon period translated from the Latin term ‘quadragesima’, meaning the “forty days”

An excerpt taken from Pope Benedict XVI’s meaningful 2009 Lenten message — “For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to focus my reflections especially on the value and meaning of fasting. Indeed, Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb, Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter. After the Forty Days, Jesus then began a journey of healing and teaching which would end with his death, Resurrection, and Ascension.

He Himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. The true fast is thus directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will. “He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry”. {Ref: Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Message 2009}.

For this reason, Catholics begin a season of penance, reflection and fasting which is an opportunity for spiritual renewal and self improvement. Some Catholics fast or ‘give up’ in sacrifice something which holds importance to them. For some it can be a habit or a food or a personality trait. Others, instead of ‘giving up’ something may chose to bring additional positive habits into their lives such as charitable good works, being kinder to others, being a Samaritan or refraining from temptations of the world.

Fasting is also an aid to open one’s eyes to the less fortunate of our brothers and sisters. In John’s First Letter, “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?”. Voluntary fasting enables one to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who sacrifices to help his suffering brother.

Ref: Catholic Online; www.Catholic.org; At Home With the Word 2010

Marie Coppola Revised February 2016

About Marie Coppola

Marie Coppola A long-time human resources administrator and paralegal (B.S. in Business Administration/ Psychology, Certified Paralegal), Marie writes to aid employees with positive career options and resources, and to assist in career development solutions for students and employees; counsels on resumes, securing employment, and being successful with promotable possibilities. Marie finds inspiration in her faith, which she enjoys passing on to others, and finds gratification in helping others wherever she can. Got a question, need advice? Marie can be reached at mcopp@ymail.com