From the Paschal Light Ecclesiastical Insights series
It is on this day we bless the ashes and the priests spreads on the heads of the faithful as a sign of humility, saying, ‘For dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return’ Gen 3:19
Watch or read
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and is called this from the ceremony of blessing ashes and marking a cross with them on the forehead of the clergy and laity as a sign of penance. The Fathers of the Church, especially St Gregory, call the first day of Lent the ‘head of the fast,’ because it is on this day that the fast of Lent begins. This custom is very ancient, for we know it was observed in the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). The covering of the head with ashes has long been a common sign of mourning among eastern nations, indicative of the deepest sorrow and distress. Instances of this are mentioned in Scripture.
Jeremiah advises the people of Jerusalem to cover themselves with ashes to escape the wrath of Nebuchadrezzar.
Howl, ye shepherds, and cry; and wallow yourselves in the ashes (Jeremiah 25:34)
The Ninivites dressed in sackcloth and put ashes upon their heads to avert the heavenly vengeance, as we read:
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. (Jonah 3:4-5)
The Christian Church has adopted such a potent symbol in order to excite sentiments in the soul of humility, compunction, and penance, by reminding us that we are but dust and unto dust shall return. Penitents, in the early Christian Church, testified their sorrow and humiliation at times by standing at the door of the Church in ‘sack cloth and ashes.’ The ashes are blessed at the altar, immediately before Mass; the celebrant marks on the heads of the clergy and the assembled people, with the blessed ashes, and to each person he thus marks, he addresses the words which God announced to the first sinner, Adam:
'Remember, O man! dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ (Gen. 3:19)
The ashes that are used on Ash Wednesday should be dry; they should be made from the branches blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year. These ashes, are indeed the remains of the glory of the God-Man, and as the seed of that which is reserved for us in heaven. Hence we should receive them in accordance with the sentiments of the Church.