Ashes for the services of Ash Wednesday are made from burnt palms from the previous Palm Sunday. They are blessed at a Mass on Ash Wednesday and then placed on the forehead of the Catholic attending the service.
It is a sacramental, which means it is in close relationship with the Sacraments, but not an actual Sacrament. A sacramental, like a rosary or a blest candle, will remind the Catholic of the presence of God. Ashes remind the Catholic that it is the beginning of Lent. Lent is the season of preparation for the Solemnity of Easter, the Lord’s resurrection.
During the season of Lent, Catholics try to get back to the basics and remove the mask they have put up all year that actually takes one away from God and the road to heaven. This is achieved by more fervent prayer, attending a parish mission or novena, frequenting the Sacrament of Penance, doing works of the charity, fasting, and almsgiving.
The day before, known in Latin countries as Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in New Orleans), there are often celebrations in which people traditionally dress in costume and do not reveal themselves until the stroke of midnight, the beginning of Lent. Again, the theme is that the masks put up a false front from God and neighbor, and Lent is a reminder of one’s mortality.
The prayer that is used when putting the ashes on the forehead is, “Remember man thou are dust and unto dust thou shall return.” The imposition of ashes, the starkness of the Liturgy, the penitential theme, all relay the theological fact that we are mortals who will die someday and who have an accountability before God for our actions. Ashes remind us that materialism is a passing fancy and will not last forever, so we should concentrate on the eternal things of the spirit and heaven. In the early Church and Middle Ages, there was a formal order of penitence in which the members wore sack cloth and ashes to note their discipline. Ash Wednesday is a reminder of discipline.
In the Book of Genesis 3:19 we read, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This was the punishment for the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve. These words were also commonly used in old English burial services to imply that we were created out of nothing and would return to nothing.
This is not to say that our souls don’t live on; rather, it reminds us that the world and all of its allurement passes, and we should never forget it.