You might have noticed some people’s foreheads had a little something on them today. It was some sort of smudge, right? Perhaps a bit of dirt? Ideally, that dirt, those ashes should take on the shape of a cross (that’s, of course, if the person putting the ashes on the forehead is pressing hard enough and has a good amount of ashes on their finger).
So, why is that? Why does Lent start with being marked by ashes?
From the pope to the people, countless Christians around the world begin Lent, the 40 days before Easter, on what’s known as Ash Wednesday. The tradition of ashes and repenting goes back to the ancient world when, for one example, the Old Testament prophet Job repented for his sins by sitting in sackcloth and ashes.
Why ashes over anything else?
“It just takes a flame and you can take something that’s beautiful and valuable and it’s reduced to this black pile of dirty nothingness that just sort of blows away in the wind,” said Joseph Stuart, Ph.D., University of Mary Program Chair of History.
It’s for this reason, as a reminder, you might hear the person distributing ashes say, “To dust you shall return.” The full form is, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” An alternative form also commonly used is, “Repent (and/or turn away from sin) and believe in the Gospel.”
While a precise date is unclear, over time the sackcloth was eventually sacked, but the ashes stuck. The ashes are made from the burnt palms from the previous Palm Sunday (the day marking the beginning of Holy Week, during which Christians recall the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth).
“It’s been about 1,000 years. And my understanding is it actually began with sprinkling ashes on a person’s head or at least men’s heads. Women often came to church with their head coverings. So, in the Middle Ages, the tradition was the cross on the forehead for women,” Stuart said.
University of Mary history major Margaret Rasmussen said, growing up, she knew there was something to Ash Wednesday but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. As she’s continued her studies and her faith journey, she said every Ash Wednesday serves as a spiritual wake-up call.
“Something important’s going on here, something beyond just the ordinary and let’s remember who we are. It’s a moment of unity for Christians,” said Rasmussen.
Another history major, Samuel Zezeus, explained why he believes anyone can appreciate Ash Wednesday.
“It’s something they can find some sort of good in, Ash Wednesday and Lent in general, this concept of finding your place and finding your calling and, you know, and having sacrifice and being penitent,” Zezeus said.
It’s a positive message for anyone, believers or not, as the season of Lent begins.