Why do we wear ashes on Ash Wednesday?

52 comments

Many people, including Catholics themselves, have no idea why we walk around on Ash Wednesday with dirty black smudges on our foreheads.

First, it’s not a smudge. It’s supposed to be a cross drawn with ash. However, some of the people administering the ashes are a little better artists than others. Either way, it gets the job done.

Second, the ashes represent our mortality and are an outward sign of our sinfulness.

But why would anyone want to be reminded of this?

Perhaps because it’s true. We are indeed mortal – we are dust, and to dust we shall return (Gen 3:19). We are sinful too. And in a world that constantly says “if it feels good, do it” and suggests that a guilty conscience is just one more thing we need a prescription for, we definitely need this healthy dose of reality.

There is something much more important that must go along with this, though. It always helps to put everything we do in the Church in context with the most important event – the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Easter.

In this case, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent which is preparation for Easter. And real preparation for Easter isn’t done with travel plans, fervor over the Sunday afternoon meal, and a resolution to eat less chocolate. It’s done in your soul.

When we look in the mirror on Ash Wednesday and see that black smudge on our foreheads, we should be reminded that, no matter what, we are still sinners in need of constant conversion. It is the Church calling us back once again to the graces of our baptism, to do penance, and amend our lives as we approach the greatest celebration in the Church — Easter.

So don’t wear your ashes proudly, but make sure you wear them…and wear them humbly.

You also might like: 5 REASONS TO LOVE FASTING (from The Radical Life).

 

Bonus: Listen to The True Meaning of Easter, by Archbishop Sheen.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was one of the best-known and best-loved Catholic orators of the twentieth century, reaching millions of Christians of all denominations. Presented here are his timeless reflections on the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord, combined with Scripture and Gregorian Chant to create a powerful presentation.

52 comments Add comment

lionel February 23, 2009 at 12:02 pm

A lovely reflection on the need to be humble and the need for a dose of reality. I think though that it’s also useful as a tool for starting up conversation with people who wonder what the smudge is all about.

God bless..

Bill February 23, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Many years ago (pre-Vatican II, if that matters), someone in clerical garb (priest? nun? I don’t remember) told me that after you leave the church, those ashes should come off of your forehead. It’s not so much a matter of not wanting to engage people in dialogue as it is doing what Jesus said he wants us to do when fasting and doing penance: Wash your face and don’t walk around looking gloomy. Change of heart is the point, not proclaiming our attendance at Ash Wednesday Mass (or services, depending on the parish).

It’s up to the individual, of course. By the time I get to the car, my forehead will be clean, and my witness will (I hope) be delivered in my behavior rather than in my visage.

castrojocelyn@yahoo.com February 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Bill.i agree w/ you,,,

lionel February 23, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Bill,
Good point. Thanks for sharing.

Matthew Warner February 23, 2009 at 5:37 pm

I think that’s a good insight Bill. And I agree – i think it is truly up to the individual.

Something I was trying to get across was that we should not wear these ashes in “pride” – like “look at me, i went to ash wednesday mass.” We should wear them humbly. Like I publicly admit I am a sinner and nothing without God. In that sense it is a very humbling thing to do.

If a person feels that they are “showing off” in wearing their ashes…then yes, they should wipe them off. But i think more often in our PRESENT culture, wearing ashes on one’s forehead is far more likely to be an object of ridicule than one of admiration.

Also, I guess I’m not sure I see the point of doing it if we just wipe them off right after. We do it because it is supposed to be a visible sacramental sign. So that we can see it on ourselves and each other. And, like Lionel said, it has given me a couple of very powerful opportunities to share with non-catholics some of the beauty of the Catholic Faith.

Finally, it gives public witness. We see this same thing throughout scripture – wearing ashes. Here’s an article that mentions some of these such instances in scripture: http://catholicexchange.com/2005/02/11/82405/

God bless you guys!

Toni February 23, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I am working through Theology of the Body and complimentary texts and read something along the lines of (in reference to the creation story) that without the breath of life breathed into Adam by God we are only dust – and that breath or life if you will, belongs to God, it is his to take, at which point we return to dust. I like this post Matt.

Matthew Warner February 24, 2009 at 10:36 am

That’s beautiful, Toni! I really like that. Thanks for sharing!

Donna February 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I just discussed this topic with my parish priest after Mass (and ashes) this morning!
Wiping or Wearing is a personal choice and in my opinion the real issues is our sincerity in our Christianity. We know (& God knows)our intent.

Paul Nichols February 26, 2009 at 7:54 am

I’ve known people who get rid of their ashes because they’re embarassed or ashamed. Kind of like those people who, when they say they’re Catholic, almost act like they’re apologizing for it.

I keep mine on all day. I’ve had people say “Hey, you got something…”, and I smile and say “I know. Ash Wednesday”. And they all say, “Oh yeah”. No other dialogue than that.

I think it serves as a quiet witness to the outside world.

Pamela March 9, 2011 at 8:34 am

Christ died for the sin of man. We are sinners no longer once we believe but a new creation in Him ! Your heavenly Dad loves you and is not condemning you ! Alive with Christ ! This is the GOOD news!

Matthew Warner March 9, 2011 at 9:20 am

Pamela – Are you saying that we don’t sin anymore after we are baptized? And have nothing more to repent about?

Nobody is saying God doesn’t love us! I’m not sure where you’re coming from. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment.

But because He loves us so much (Easter) and because we love Him so much, it’s even more important to prepare ourselves for the greatest celebration in the Church – the very reason we are saved – Easter.

Peace be with you and have a blessed Lent!

Dee March 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

All day today I have been getting mean comments about my ashes on my head….Like..you have dirt on your face ha ha ha…Or even just laughter …I don’t want to say the wrong thing…What should I say?

Matthew Warner March 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I’d just smile and laugh with them and cheerfully and matter-of-fact-ly say, “Oh, no, it’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. They are ashes.” And then if they ask you any more questions about them, be ready to explain the basic reason for why we wear ashes and celebrate Lent in preparation for Easter. But certainly don’t let it bother you! If people honestly haven’t seen it before, they won’t know any better. And if they are somehow making fun of you…well it’s just kind of sad…cuz there literally really isn’t anything funny about it. So just smile and help them understand.

lozen March 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm

This is so ridiculous. This is the 21st century and we still follow this superstitious rigamarole? No wonder Americans are being taken to the cleaners by our gov’t. If we still believe this, we can be convinced of anything!

Matthew Warner March 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Lozen, I encourage you to learn a bit more about this topic (as well as to read this post). There is absolutely nothing superstitious about it. In fact, superstition is not compatible with Catholic teaching.

Peace be with you!

Bob February 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

“…superstition is not compatible with Catholic teaching.”

Do you believe in ghosts? THAT’S a superstition!

Superstition has EVERYTHING to do with religion if it involves the supernatural. Go ahead, Matthew, embrace your superstitious mind! Do not deny it!

Deacon Neil Hook March 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Thank you for your comments on Ash Wednesday and Lent. It mirrors what I said in my most recent blog post. It is a reminder that we all need and we thank the Church for giving us this season every year.

Dee March 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Thank You Matthew I appreciate your response. And your right, I never thought that maybe someone honestly doesn’t know what it means. I feel much better now…

God Bless!! :)

Danica March 9, 2011 at 7:20 pm

I saw this mark on a bank teller’s forehead today and wanted to ask her what it was. I could tell the mark was intentional and likely religious, but I didn’t know. I didn’t have a chance to find out either since she was busy with the same customer the entire time I was in the branch. I’m 30 years old and even have several Catholics in my family, though I am not one, and have never seen these Ash Wednesday markings until today. You should share with others what the markings are, as I’m certain 99% of them really don’t know. I know I didn’t.

robert February 13, 2013 at 9:17 am

Danica I am sure the family you have, would be more then please to describe to you what this means to them.

Pamela March 9, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Yup I’m saying we are no longer sinners (after we Believe ) . Admittedly we mess up but God no longer consider this sin. Christ redeemed all sin. As far as fasting goes ,(if your really interested look up John Crowders , taco bell challenge on youtube to understand what the bible says) it’s considered a work. You don’t need to “do” anything to get God’s favor – he gives it freely. No preparation needed

Matthew Warner March 9, 2011 at 11:42 pm

“Yup I’m saying we are no longer sinners (after we Believe )” Pamela – you realize that is not a Christian teaching, right? And it certainly isn’t taught in the Bible. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Also, fasting is entirely biblical. I don’t have to take the taco bell challenge on youtube to know that. I can just read the Bible. Here are a bunch of scripture references on fasting.

Do we believe that fasting itself saves us? Of course not. So I’m not sure where you are going with the whole “works” thing. We are called to do God’s work. Are we not? That’s work. Such work also sanctifies us, which is necessary, but not exactly the same thing as “salvation” in the sense that you would probably define it. Anyway, you seem to be trying to make a point, but not sure what it is.

Here’s another post you may find helpful. It has some other links at the bottom you might like as well.

God bless you!

ana March 9, 2011 at 7:46 pm

en realidad no mas hacen comentarios sin saber que es la ceniza y que significado tiene soy cristiana catolica,los invito aque en esta cuaresma el punto mas importante.es la reflexion y la penitencia. el ayuno y ser mas humildes y no desprestigiandonos siempre los catolicos estamos en primera fila .bueno que tienen contra nosotros los fieles catolicos
las cenizas usadas para la cruz que recibimos en la frente son obtenidas al quemar las palmas usadas en el domingo de ramos del ano anterior.en este dia se inicia un tiempo espiritual partircularmente para todo cristianoque quiera prepararse dignamentepara vivir el misterio pascual es decir la pasion y muerte y resurrecion de jesucristo.

ana March 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm

no le hacemos dano a nadie para que nos ataquen siempre por eso muchos de los que eran de los nuestros nos senalan que somos los anticristos y que el papa es el 666 y no es sierto. es gente mal imformada que no sabe lo que esta diciendo por eso muchas que eran delos nuestros son los que salieron de nuestra santa iglesia solo hay una sola iglesia la que fundo jesucristo que es la catolica la mas antigua y que tiene 2 mil anos aunque le duela al diablo y al mundo y los poderes del infierno nola podran vercer.es verdad que hay personas que desprestigian a nuestra santa iglesia.pero nosotros no podemos juzgar a nuestros hermanos separados porque tambien vamos a tener a alguien que nos va a juzgar

Debby March 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Dear Matthew,
Thank you so much for your enlightening message on wearing ashes. I am not Catholic, but am definitely a believer in our Lord Jesus, having received Him as my very own Savior many years ago. Anyway, I went to my church last night and received ashes for the first time, and I must admit, it was a humbling act of faith, as your message stated it should be. I can see how it represents contrition and wanting to start anew with Jesus and to ponder His death on the cross and resurrection. I guess, too, I wanted to comment on Pamela’s words, where she says we are no longer sinners after we believe. Maybe I know where she is coming from, as I used to belong to a ministry that basically said that, and it always troubled me. I am no longer in that ministry. Instead, now, I believe that since receiving Christ into my life, my sins are now forgiven, through the shed blood of Jesus for me … BUT, I still sin, and the Lord surely lets me know when I have “missed the mark,” and I can speak to Him about it. If it were true that we never sin anymore after believing in Jesus, why does the Bible tell us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”? Also, I think of that passage in scripture when Jesus spoke about the tax collector and the Pharisee’s method of praying. The Pharisee went on to say to himself that he thanked God that he didn’t sin in this way and that way (and so on and so on), but that the tax collector couldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast, and just said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified. Anyway, I appreciated your message and insightful answers. Thank you, Matthew!

Matthew Warner March 10, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Debby, thanks for your great comments! And welcome! I hope you’ll come back and continue to share your faith here. God bless you and have a blessed Lent.

Daniel March 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Why don’t Catholics take off from work on Ash Wednesday? Did I really need to see a guy at work who had an imprimatur of a cross smacked right across his nose and forehead? Isn’t that shoving his religion in my face?

Matthew Warner March 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Daniel,

Thanks for the questions.

First, there is no need to take off work to celebrate Ash Wednesday.

Second, that’s not really the proper use of the term “imprimatur.”

Third, I suppose you don’t “need” to see a guy at work wearing ashes, but it’s probably good for you and a lot of people. It helps remind us when we look in the mirror or when we see others wearing ashes that we are mortal. I, for one, enjoy seeing others expressing their faith in a non-violent way that doesn’t impact or bother anyone else and that actually builds up the community instead of tearing it down.

Fourth, does this mean that he is “shoving his religion” in your face? No. Of course not.

Fifth, if seeing somebody wearing a cross bothers you so much, I would suspect there are some other personal issues at the root of it that may be worth exploring.

Peace be with you.

bob February 22, 2012 at 4:38 am

looks like u have been cleaning out the fire and didnt wash. ichy head ????

uche February 22, 2012 at 8:58 am

i believe we are all sinners and with a humble heart full of thanksgiving we should beready to do what pleases christ @ all cost as directed by ur good spirit.God bless u

Moses Jesudian January 20, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Ash Wednesday emphasizes two themes: our sinfulness before God and our human mortality. The service focuses on both themes, helping us to realize that both have been triumphed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Bob February 13, 2013 at 9:13 am

Silly superstition. Isn’t it about time we shake off the ancient myths of the Bronze Age?

MakLed February 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Today is Ash Wed and I never knew what it meant or why people walked around with ashes on their forehead. So I googled and came upon this blog which has served to be extremely enlightening for me. A part of me truly felt and still feel that there are some who just go through the motions of getting the ashes because it’s the thing to do… granted, I don’t know that for fact. Nevertheless, now that I know the meaning behind it I think we should all (not just catholics) get the ashes on our forehead since we are all sinners. Thank you Matt for explaining!

'Chelle February 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Hello,

I just wanted to thank you for this amazingly well written, well handled, and insightful dialog!

We do continue to sin and need to return to God for repentance. To think otherwise is to deny that we are falible humans in a falible world. Under those circumstance, we are just not capable of walking a perfect life – we can only give it our best, most sincere, effort.

However I’ve been seeing a lot about how the meaning of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we are all sinners and all mortal. Personally, I prefer to see the ashes as a reminder that we are loved by God, the sacrifice His son made to pay for our sins, to be thankful for such a wonderous gift, and to strive to improve (as human beings as well as Christians) before our Maker calls us Home.

To hear people call wearing ashes a superstition, feel another person is forcing their religion on them, ridicule others, or be outright rude only shows how important it is to follow the faith you believe in, LIVE by your beliefs, and understand the meaning of the rituals so you can discuss them with others IF an opportunity for such discussion comes up.

To everyone who has the heart to walk and live their faith, you are an inspiration to others.

To anyone who feels put upon by seeing someone wear ashes on Ash Wednesday, religion is only put upon you when someone preaches to you and you aren’t able to walk away. If all symbols of faith and individuality are scrubbed out of societies view, then the very intent and law of the Constitution is being violated. I feel put upon by having to walk past cigarette smokers in the street every day, where the smoke endangers my health – but it’s their individual right to damange their bodies … and mine. If someone wearing ashes does not even mention religion in any conversation or any context, then they are demonstating their individual right in a harmless and very peaceful manner, they are not rubbing your nose in it (Yes, the pun was intended). If you can not respect their strength for declaring who and what they are, then please respect them for chosing a peaceful way to do so.

To anyone who derides or ridicules a person for any sign of their faith, well, you’ll ignore this anyway, but try doing something positive when you want to cry out for attention. You’ll get a whole lot farther in life. Everyone else has as much right to express themselves as you do and we all learned the golden rule in kindergarden. Perhaps adults have trouble following childhood truths because they’re the most pure and unbiased of all opinions.

I truly respect this string of posts for how well it explains something that is important to many people, how genuine it is, and how respectfully every contributor is treated. Thank you for such an uplifting encounter!

God Bless

Jeannine February 17, 2013 at 10:07 am

I keep reading the term “superstitious” or “superstition” where ashes are discussed on this forum. I can see the term used for other areas of many and any religions, (not agreeing just identifying) but for the act of wearing ashes it is used inappropriately.

Wearing ashes is NOT a superstition, which by definition is
a: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation
b: an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
2: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.

Wearing Ashes is a reminder to Catholics 1. of our mortality (those not believing we are mortal will need to study medicine for that) and 2. that we sin, (which is simply defined by how we believe we should conduct ourselves in our lives not only based on the teachings of our religon but also as dictated by the laws of our society). The depth to which we as Catholics take our faith has nothing to do with “Ashes”, Catholics do not believe ashes will somehow save us or that by wearing the ashes our sins are “magically” erased. Wearing ashes is a humbling act to remind us to try harder to be better human beings. It is simply a reminder for us to reflect and repent. Labeling Ashes or Catholics receiving ashes as superstitious, identifies ignorance of the meaning of receiving the Ashes.

As for us not being sinners since Jesus died on the cross to save us, makes me think that that person thinks they can act or behave however they want, do what they want and all will be good for them on judgement day. To that person I simply say, good luck with that.

Thanks.

Bob February 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Whether you admit it or not, it is still a practice borne out of superstition. If you believe in a supernatural deity, then you fit the definition of superstitious.

Thank goodness that reason and evidence is winning out and allowing more and more people to cast off the blinders of religion and join the 21st century!

Matthew Warner February 18, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Bob – that’s not a very rational statement, actually. There are many sound arguments that would support the existence of a supernatural deity. Any honest atheist worth his salt admits at least this.

And apparently you aren’t very familiar with the Catholic religion…which is based in reason, philosophy, history and experience and has a very long tradition of intellectualism. And it was one of the key forces that led the western world away from superstition, by celebrating and promoting a rational, intelligible world, developing the scientific method, etc.

I’d encourage you to not paint all religion with such a broad brush.

Bob February 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

“There are many sound arguments that would support the existence of a supernatural deity.”

Hahaha! Make your arguments, have it peer-reviewed and go collect your Nobel prize!

Jeannine February 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Bob, I will pray for you. We have digressed from the original topic which was Ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Blind faith is very difficult for human beings to embrace. If you need evidence google it. Came up with 1000s of pages of it. Here’s a link if you dare…
http://www.rev-know-it-all.com/2009/2009—09-06.html

Oh and Bob, whether you want to admit it or not, miracles do exist, do happen and the presence of God is all around us. When you free your mind of the blinders you have erected, you will see that…try it…I dare you.

For now, we agree to disagree.
Jeannine

Bob February 19, 2013 at 1:36 am

Right! Just as the pink elephants are visible to the alcoholics! No thanks. I think I’ll stick with reality. Don’t forget — we are all born atheists! The blinders are the ones you have been taught to wear! I have never been afflicted with religion and I don’t see a reason to start now.

Pray all you want. It does nothing except make YOU feel like you’re doing something. Rather self-centered, it would seem!

If there were real evidence of a god, you wouldn’t need to believe . . . Because you would know! But, it’s all just ancient myths and legends written for superstitious people who need to be controlled.

Matthew Warner February 19, 2013 at 8:24 am

Bob – You’re showing your ignorance again. Just trying to help you out here.

Bob February 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm

No, not ignorant. Just not interested in delusions!

Jeannine February 19, 2013 at 10:06 am

Bob,

Your posts have a very angry tone. I’m not sure why? I can feel the tension from the words you post and it is indicative that you are desperately trying to fight what is actually very apparent to you and you are very unwilling to accept it. Bless your heart I have prayed that someone will hug you, you need it. I am so sorry you cannot rationally have an exchange of ideas without sarcasm or ridicule. I learned long ago, in order to have a debate you must first understand the other side. This will in fact allow you to debate intellectually. Your method of stomping out the other’s words doesn’t give much credibility to your stance, which I am guessing is that there is no God. Let me know when you have the scientific answers to the miracles I have sent to you, when hundreds of men of science have yet to answer them. And also I will be very curious to read your proof there is in fact no God. If you believe there isn’t, please present your valid proof, but let’s stop ridiculing ideas or statements. I prefer to deal with actual events. Now, I’ve sent to you examples of things which have no rational or scientific explanation, please send to me the explanations or at least your notations of your investigations into them. If you can calmly and precisely identify your explanations I will be glad to continue this exchange. Otherwise, God is merciful and kind he will watch over you. I, on the otherhand am human and bid you farewell.

Jeannine

Thank you for allowing me to share my views. I am thankful for finding this forum. I prefer not to continue an exchange

Bob February 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Jeannine…

“…you are desperately trying to fight what is actually very apparent to you and you are very unwilling to accept it.”

Dime store psychology? Really? Well…you are wrong.

“…I will be very curious to read your proof there is in fact no God.” When you submit your method for proving there no unicorns, leprechaun, fairies, or werewolves…then I will use your method to prove there is no god. Ever heard of “Russell’s Teapot?”

You BELIEVE in a god, so you see what you want to see. Do you know the term “confirmation bias?” It’s the same thing that makes astrology followers SO convinced that their “readings” are correct. Well, no sale here! Astrology, religion, heaven, hell, are all bunk, albeit POPULAR bunk, but bunk nonetheless. Finally, stories of miracles are popular fiction — you’ll find them everywhere, but anecdotal stories are not hard evidence, no matter how much you really WANT them to be!

johnny hobo June 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm

I wear an upside down cross lol hail satan xD

Matthew Warner June 27, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Actually, the inverted cross is a symbol of St. Peter…who insisted (when being crucified) on being crucified upside down, as he wasn’t worthy of the same death as Jesus. I commend your dedication to St. Peter’s courage and humility!

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