In The Lives of the Saints, Aelfric writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins.”
Ashes sprinked on the faithful’s heads (Julian Fałat/Wikimedia)
Aelfric then proceeds to tell that on Ash Wednesday, ashes were sprinkled on the head and the congregation came dressed in sackcloth – “gunny sack” burlap – just like Job in the Old Testament who repented before the Lord in sackcloth, dust and ashes, according to Job 42:6.
Other biblical examples cited are in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3 – in times of mourning and repentance. Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21, saying that the towns of Korazin and Bethsaida had ignored God’s miracles and should “have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
The observance of Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, “is never mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God,” admits Bucher. “Christians are free to either observe or not observe. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like similar external practices, are meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behavior.”
“In the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person’s ownership,” writes James Akin on the Catholic television network EWTN’s website. “By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ.
“This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
“It is also in imitation of the way the righteousness are described in the book of Revelation, where we read: “Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”(Revelation 14:1).
“This is in contrast to the followers of the beast, who have the number 666 on their foreheads or hands,” writes Akin.
Why isn’t Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation for Catholics?
“Holy days of obligation are either commemorations of particular
events (such as the birth of Christ or the presentation of Jesus in the Temple), particular people (such as Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph), or important theological concepts (such as the Kingship of Christ),” explains Akin. “Ash Wednesday does not commemorate any event. Nothing special happened forty days before the crucifixion although Ash Wednesday is a day of penance.”
And that smudged cross on your boss’s forehead? “Many Christians choose to leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day, not to be showy and boastful,” explains Bucher. “Rather, they do it as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance and that through Jesus, all sins are forgiven.”