Ashes: Where They Come From, and Why They Go On Your Forehead

Wednesday, millions of Catholics around the world will emerge from Ash Wednesday services with a dark cross of ashes on their foreheads.

Later that day, some of them may get a question from their non-Catholic friends: Why do you have that on your face? It’s a golden opportunity to tell someone about your faith

The placing of ashes on the forehead is a tradition with roots in the Old Testament. “I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3).

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a time when Catholics are called to prayer, to fasting, and to almsgiving, which means donating money or goods to the poor, and performing other acts of charity.

The ashes are rich in symbolism. They are a call to repentance, a physical sign that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. They remind us that God created us from the earth, and that we will return to it when we die. They also symbolize God’s promise that even though our bodies will return to dust, our souls are meant to live forever with Him.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning last year’s blessed palm branches. While a few parishes in the Diocese may still make their own ashes in this way, others purchase them from religious supply companies.

As a reminder, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting, and of abstaining from meat. Fasting is defined as eating one full meatless meal, as well as two smaller meals that are not equal to a full meal. Catholics also do not eat meat on the other Fridays in Lent.

By Paul Wirth, Diocese Communications Staff


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