Why the ashes on Ash Wednesday? First, putting ashes on the head is an ancient custom with the Jews in the Old Testament.
Job 42:6 I retract what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.
Daniel 9:3 I turned my face to the Lord God begging for time to pray and to plead, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.
Maccabees 3:47 That day they fasted and put on sackcloth, covering their heads with ashes and tearing their garments.
Esther 4:3 And in every province, no sooner had the royal command and edict arrived, than among the Jews there was great mourning, fasting, weeping and wailing, and many lay on sackcloth and ashes.
In all of these examples the people were repenting from their sins. They put ashes on themselves and donned sackcloth. They fasted and prayed to God for forgiveness.
Every year on Ash Wednesday we hear the reading in church Joel 2:12-18 In this reading, all the people were to gather as a community to engage in fasting and prepare for the Lord when He comes and to repent from their sins. This was a public, open fasting and worship. On Ash Wednesday, we gather as a congregation in prayer for the beginning of Lent. Ashes come from burned palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. We openly receive ashes on our forehead in the form of a cross. The ashes in the shape of a cross are a reminder of Jesus’ death and the sins we have committed that caused Him to die for us. We are all sinners, and the ashes on our foreheads is our reminder. The blessing we receive while the ashes are placed on our forehead is “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Also on Ash Wednesday we hear the reading from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 where Jesus was instructing the disciples and crowds about alms-giving, prayer, and fasting.
1. When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
so that your alms may be done in secret;
2. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret;
3. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret;
This reading is so important during Ash Wednesday because this is what we are to do for the rest of lent. Jesus did not say try to do… He said when you do these things. And do them all in secret. That is part of being humble and to sacrifice with penitence during Lent. Ash Wednesday is the public, first day of Lent, and the rest of Lent is done in private or personal sacrifice. The two readings are read together for a reason, to teach us how to act through this season.
The Ashes are a reminder that time goes quickly and soon enough we will be ashes too.