Although Ash Wednesday is not a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, some of the largest crowds of the year will flock to church next Wednesday to receive ashes on their foreheads. How do we explain the popularity of smudging our foreheads with ashes and then walking around all day with dirty faces? It all began with the Hebrew people of the Old Testament. Sackcloth and ashes were commonly worn by the Israelite people as a sign to the rest of the community that they had sinned against God. Earliest records tell us that the tradition of sprinkling ashes on the head was adopted by the Catholic Church in the 10th century as a way of showing to the rest of the congregation that a person had seriously sinned and was committing acts of charity and penance in order to be welcomed back into the church community. Today, the reception of ashes on ones forehead is a reminder to the world that every human person has sinned and is in need of repentance. Ushering in the 40 days of the Lenten Season on Ash Wednesday, Catholics everywhere are reminded of their own mortality as they receive ashes and hear the words of the priest “remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return.” May the ashen cross traced on our foreheads forever be a reminder to us that we are repentant sinners who eagerly anticipate the Resurrection of Christ at Easter.
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