What do the ashes on Ash Wednesday mean?

Published on 28 Feb 2017
Cardinal Nichols making sign of cross with ashes on a woman's head.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent which itself helps us recall the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by the devil and helps us prepare to celebrate Holy Week and Eastertide. Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and abstinence, which means that on this day Catholics are not meant to eat meat, and should only eat one main meal (there are exceptions for the elderly, the ill, and children.) Lent is also a time when Christians try to observe practices of fasting, prayer and alms-giving, so Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this special period of reflection and other good deeds – for example, money saved from abstaining from certain foods can be given to the poor. Most Catholics go to Mass on Ash Wednesday, when ashes are distributed. The priest or another minister will put the sign of the cross on their heads. Why? 

In Jewish tradition, placing ashes on the head symbolised repentance or grief. However, the ashes are not a sign of sadness in the normal sense, but are worn to show our repentance and as a reminder of God’s mercy and forgiveness. The psalm which is sung at Mass is the famous Miserere psalm (51) which has the refrain ‘Have mercy on us O Lord, for we have sinned.’ During Lent we are asked to reflect on our sins against other people and against God and repent from them, to start afresh. This is why, when the ashes are placed on the head, the words ‘Repent, and believe the Gospel’ are often used. The alternative words ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return’ are a reminder of our own mortality. Sometimes, the mark of the cross might not be that obvious, but this does not hide the truth that through his death on the Cross and through his resurrection, Jesus came to save each and every one of us, to bring us to new life. Ash Wednesday is, in a way, a new start for each and every Christian.

The ashes are made from palms which were carried on Palm Sunday the year before. In some parishes, the priest collects the people’s palms to burn them for that year’s Ash Wednesday. During the Mass, these ashes are also blessed with holy water, to remind us of our birth to new life in the waters of baptism.

The second reading at the Mass says that we are ‘We are ambassadors for Christ’ so as Christians we should not seek to hide the ashes that have been placed on our heads, because it is good for others to know that we are Christian and that we are aware of our own faults, in need of God’s loving mercy. But in the Gospel Jesus says ‘be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract notice’. So we ought not to show off the ashes either, or tell everyone what we are giving up, or taking up, for Lent! Perhaps one of the tricky things about Lent is trying to live this opportunity properly, from deep within our hearts, out of love and gratitude for God’s love for us, and without showing off that we are doing so. 

Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).

 ‘Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

 ‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them; I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

 ‘When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’