Catholic Classroom: Why We Wear Ashes

Question: Why do we put ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday?

If you are Catholic, then you are probably accustomed to the practice of going to Mass and getting ashes put on your forehead on Ash Wednesday. But why ashes? What do they mean?

Traditionally, ashes are used as a sign of penance. On several occasions in the Old Testament, people put on ashes to signify their repentance and mourning (Judith 4:11; Esther 4:1-3; 1 Maccabees 3:47; Daniel 9:3-6). Catholics follow this ancient tradition to show their sorrow for their sins and for any actions that have harmed their relationship with God. The symbolism of the ashes is a perfect way to begin Lent, a time during which we turn away from sin and make a dedicated effort to accept God’s love and mercy, especially through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Ashes also have a very real and tangible significance for our physical bodies. Ashes are comparable to dust, and as God said to Adam and Eve after the fall, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). We often hear these words echoed by the priest when he distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday. The ashes remind us that we will all die one day.

It is vital to enter Lent with a penitential heart and a sincere desire to fully live out God’s will. This necessarily leads to sorrow, but it is a healthy sorrow—one that recognizes the gap between who we are and who God has made us to be. Always combined with that sorrow is Christian hope. We know, by God’s grace, that we can repent and turn away from sin to live in God’s love. We wear ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind us that one day, we will die—but we also remember that, through Christ, we are invited into eternal life.

Please join us for Masses throughout the day on Ash Wednesday, beginning with the CatholicTV Mass with Bishop Reed at 9:30am ET/8:30am CT/6:30am PT, followed by Mass with Pope Francis at 10:30am ET/9:30am CT/7:30am PT.


Catholic Classroom: Why We Wear Ashes