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How to Explain Your Ashes: 3 Methods

Feb 27, 2017 By Laura Jean Rabiipour

Have you ever been asked about your Ash Wednesday ashes? During the Ash Wednesday service our foreheads are adorned with ashes followed by the words:

"For you are dust, And to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:19)

This physical sign commemorates the beginning of our Lenten season of sacrifice and spiritual growth. If you are like me, it is not uncommon for your Ash Wednesday cross to turn into a smudge. When going out in public, you may receive a question or comment about your forehead being "dirty".  It's easy to be vague and shy away from giving an answer about the meaning of this mark of sacrifice. But this year challenge yourself to be prepared to fully answer their questions. Here are three ways to respond to remarks about the smudge on your forehead:


The use of ashes originates in the Old Testament times. The Catholic Bible references the use of ashes during times of mourning and repentance. Today we place a cross of ashes on our head. However, when the practice of ashes began it was common to wear sackcloth (a garment made of uncomfortable rough fabric) while sitting and rolling around in ashes (see Job 42: 6, Job 16: 15, Daniel 9: 3-6).

Sample Response: In the Bible, it was common for individuals to place ashes on their body during a time of repentance. Today marks the beginning of Lent, which is the time we contemplate our relationship with God and identify the areas in our spiritual life that need work. The ashes are a physical reminder of our Lenten journey.

sackcloth and ashes___________________________________________________________________________________________


For thousands of years the faithful who are sorrowful for their sins have been receiving ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, also referred to as "dies cinerum"  (Day of Ashes). The ashes come from the burnt palms from Palm Sunday. They are fragranced with incense, sprinkled with holy water, and are blessed with four ancient prayers. Unlike the laity, clerics historically receive the ashes on the top of their heads because that is where they first received their clerical tonsure. This is why you might see our Holy Father Pope Francis with ashes on his head rather than his forehead. 

 Sample Response: The distribution of ashes comes from an ancient Christian ceremony. Those who committed grave faults performed public penance and were sprinkled with ashes on Ash Wednesday. For 40 days, they would do penance to be forgiven for their wrongdoings. Today, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, come to receive ashes on this day.

Ash Wednesday Pope Benedict



"Then the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being" (Gen 2:7). Our bodies were made from nothing, and will return to nothing when we die. The ashes are a symbol of this passing world and a reminder of our eventual death (See also John 9:6). However, we have Easter to look forward to. Through Christ's death and resurrection we can receive everlasting life.

Sample Response: By receiving the ashes and keeping them on through the day, we are recognizing that life passes away on earth. We strive during Lent to refocus our lives on God and look toward his Kingdom in Heaven rather than the kingdom on earth.

For Catholic devotional items that will help you through your Lent and Easter journey, go here.

Read next Lenten Season 101: A Guide for Everything You Need to Know

How to your ashes on Ash Wednesday: 3 methods.

This article was originally published in March 2014. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.


Patricia Witecha says
Mar 4 2017 9:59AM
Ash Wednesday I went to mass and received the blessing of Ashes.....after Mass (I am 74) I began experiencing symptoms that required a ER visit....the ER doctor attending first words to me were, "I see you received your Ashes!"....I responded, " Where are yours?" He said, " I did not get any." I responded, " Would you like some of mine?" He responded, " I don't think the Catholic Churche would approve that and I do not attend church anymore." I responded, "Love tells me you are a Cradle-born Catholic...received first communion and confirmation in the Catholic Church and you still don't know what that conferred upon you?" To which he responded, "I guess I don't." It opened a wonderful opportunity to invite him into the blessings and while staying in hospital opened many doors to evangelize the Love of Christ and His Teachings. I am a Convert......and this happens frequently to me.....God is Good! Blessings, patti
Tanya says
Mar 3 2017 12:26PM
Dear Sylvia Baggettt, it's been 3 years since your post.... I hope & pray that u r in God's grace, r participating in the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, recieving Jesus & that u have found peace & joy in prayer. "The fruit of Silence is Prayer. The fruit of Prayer is Faith. The fruit of Faith is Love. The fruit of Love is Service. The fruit of Service is Peace." St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Patricia says
Feb 27 2017 6:39PM
Are the use of Ashes Bible based or man made ? I never read about ashes in the whole Bible...
Hi Patricia, as mentioned in this article in the first section, in the bible ashes were sprinkled on the head as a sign of repentance.
Cathy Deboer, in reference to your post to Sylvia.

The Communion was instituted at the Last Supper by the Lord Himself.

About divorce in Matthew 5:31 ..." but I say to you, whoever divorces his wife - unless the marriage is unlawful - causes her to commit adultery, and whoever married a divorced woman commits adultery."

When we receive Communion (which is the body and blood of Christ) we should be free of grave sin, which means we should be following Jesus' teachings. If the divorce was not your fault and you are not remarried you should be able to receive Communion and practice your Faith like anybody else. God loves everyone the same and he wants us to follow his commandments so we can have eternal life.

Kerri says
Feb 10 2016 10:49AM
Interesting, I used to be Catholic, but except in the Charismatic Renewal movement, Holy Spirit never comes, also, I can no longer accept the concept of Purgatory, having been born again, I'm quite happy in my new church. Main reason is as a child, I was hurt in the same way as those hurt in the U.S. scandals were hurt, He's graciously taken away the flashbacks, so I can go to church for friends weddings and what not, but it's still no longer my church, and I'm at peace with that :-)
Hi Kerri, if you have been baptized Catholic, you are still a Catholic. We hope that you will be comforted to know that nothing can remove this indelible mark of the Holy Spirit on your soul - no matter how deeply you may have been hurt by the wicked actions of any individual. We encourage you to come back to the Catholic Church to receive healing through the Sacraments so the Holy Spirit can renew and enlarge in you what he has already begun - especially the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which is the Real Presence of Christ - Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
Fr. Mark Schwarz says
Feb 9 2016 11:52PM
Sylvia Bagget:

Please email me at msch855087 @ aol . com. I can answer your question and relieve your conscience.

Fr. Mark
kimberly says
Feb 9 2016 8:36PM
I don't know if "james" is still following this post (his is the 2nd comment, dated March 3, 2014), but it's still an interesting question. I've worked in public schools since the 1980s. Normally, I'm not able to make the morning or noon distribution of ashes, so in those years it doesn't come up during the school day for me. But there's always someone who comes in with their foreheads marked with ashes, and when I am able to get my ashes early, kids don't usually ask. Most of them already know. If they do ask, I just say, "It's part of my religion. We have a ceremony where our foreheads are marked with ashes." A few of the other kids will usually pipe up to say their parents get them, too.
Diane says
Feb 9 2016 7:19PM
I have recently gone back to being Catholic. However I don't understand why we are constantly labeled sinners. I don't believe the Adam and Eve story. Instead I believe in joyfulness.
Anna Paolicelli says
Feb 8 2016 6:15PM
Ashes are done in Rome. The only thing is that they don't place them on the forehead but rather in the hair (as do most other countries except for the United States). We're actually the weird ones for having ashes on our foreheads. When I was living in Rome, my first Ash Wednesday I went to the American Mass celebrated by American priests from the North American College and these priests applied the ashes directly to the forehead. I did not know that this was not common for the rest of the world and I got weird and dirty looks (even from religious sisters) because I was walking around essentially like I had dirt on my head and didn't bathe. The more you know.
Dianna Baran says
Mar 8 2014 9:27PM
my perspective for ash Wednesday is somewhat unusual. I was not born Catholic and it took me until I was 62 ti become one. Since that amazing day, i have imbraced all of the traditions and sacrements of the church! I don't really believe that older Catholics can appreciate how blessed we are that we have this tradition. I would never miss an ash Wesnesday service or confession. They both are gift to us by are heavely father. AMEN!!!!!

Cathy DeBoer says
Mar 5 2014 4:11PM
Sylvia I am so sorry you feel this way!! Where in the Bible does it say you can't take part in Communion!! This is mans law not Gods law!! Jesus loves all sinners and all he cares about is your heart! I am sorry someone told you this!! Jesus loves you!!!!
David says
Mar 5 2014 2:17PM
Sylvia, if you are divorced you can most certainly still receive Communion. Those divorced and remarried without getting an annulment should not receive Communion. I am not sure which case you fall into. I agree you should speak with your parish priest. He can better advise you on your status and what to do.
Rita Ellerbrook says
Mar 5 2014 11:09AM
Sylvia, God is all about starting over. Remember Jesus and the women at the well. He did not tell her to wallow in the past. He said get up and move on, rightfully. What ever the issues the divorce is in the past. Be who God wants you to be now. Remember that you are made of God's stuff, good stuff and knowing that you can move on joyfully because God is the judge of you and NOONE ELSE is.
Danny says
Mar 5 2014 10:03AM
Sylvia, ANYONE can receive ashes. By the way, being divorced is not a sin. Remarrying without an annulment is where the problem lies. Talk with your pastor or another trusted, holy priest. Please!

Being divorced does not prevent you from participating in receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. Nor does it prohibit you from

receiving Holy Communion unless you are involved in a romantic relationship or second 'marriage' without the benefit of an annulment.

Go and receive all the blessings and graces you can and please seek out a spiritual director to help you on your path to holiness.

Be faithful and you will be faith filled!

I recommend visiting to put you on the path to faithful spiritual direction.

God Bless You!
Monica Hill says
Mar 4 2014 10:46PM
These three explanation reinforce what I was taught while attending Catholic School.
Sylvia Baggettt says
Mar 4 2014 5:55PM
Because I am divorced is it admitted to receive ashes? I feel hollow when I go to church because I am divorced and cannot receive the Eucharist. What can I do to feel more whole. Prayer is all I have and I can't seem to feel the power of god when I pray. Please help me.
Sylvia, I do not have the answer for you. The best person to ask would be your local parish priest. He can help you with your questions and your struggle with prayer.
God Bless,
David says
Mar 4 2014 11:53AM
Hello Laura Jean, it seems what you are saying is we should find a balance (don't shove our faith on people but don't be completely silent on it), which I agree.

I brought up Matthew 6:16 playing devil's advocate (no pun intended). Just wondering what people's response would be if someone who doesn't think having ashes on your forehead is right brings those verses up.

Personally I am probably too timid in sharing my faith, but that is my personality in general. I guess that is something I need to work on, and having ashes on my forehead might be the kick in the pants for me to share more if asked....
Gil T. says
Mar 4 2014 11:05AM
Thank you all for the opportunity to learn and grow through your thoughts and opinions. I appreciate the grace, tone and respect of the conversation. God Bless all of you and keep you safe!
linda mangers says
Mar 4 2014 9:45AM
all good comments
James Lam says
Mar 4 2014 7:22AM
I am very enlightened with this explanation of the Ashes for Ash Wednesday, even though I am quite aware.

Thank you.


James Lam
Julie Berry says
Mar 4 2014 6:35AM
Yes you are correct, Jesus did pay for our

Sins. We use the ashes for the beginning of Lent to help remind us of repentance and what Christ has done for us. It helps us get closer in our personal relationship with him. When you sacrifice things about yourself you become less worldly.
Amen, Frances! Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice who was sent from the Father to die for all the sins of all mankind. We certainly don't *need* to receive ashes on our foreheads but we do it as a reminder to ourselves of our faith in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the power of His resurrection. As stated above, it is also a reminder of our own mortality (which in turn is a good reminder that we have only a finite amount of time to prepare ourselves for eternity!). Since we use the season of Lent as a time of spiritual renewal and growth through fasting, giving to the poor, and repentance, receiving ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of this time is a good way to mark the beginning of this season and has its roots in the biblical practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance and sorrow (which is appropriate as we are supposed to be sorry for our sins and have a repentant heart). It isn't that we must receive and wear ashes but that we choose to do it to enrich our faith lives.
robert ward says
Mar 4 2014 1:34AM
Frances. Having ashes visible on your forehead is an outward sign of faith.and when asked about it by the curious is an opportunity to evangelise people and take part in the " Great Comission" which is the duty of all Christians to take part in..
@Francis - right idea about Jesus but short on logic about ceremonies. These keep us pointed to Jesus. He understood that when he instituted "rituals" & "ceremonies" like baptism and at the last Supper when he broke the bread and announced "do this in memory of me". Ceremonies keep our focus on Jesus be it personal rituals of prayers & bible reading before bedtime or gathering in a prayer group weekly to praise God.

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Commentary by

Laura Jean Rabiipour Laura Jean Rabiipour

Laura Jean is a cradle Catholic who grew up in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis, MN. Searching for warmer weather she flew south and attended Belmont Abbey College. There, she cultivated a deeper love for Our Mother Mary, southern life, and a boy named Nicholas who will soon be her husband. She was instructed by her loving folks to grow her faith and when possible to share it, a mission she is now working to accomplish at The Catholic Company.

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