“You’ve got a little smudge on your forehead.”
I have lost track of the times I’ve heard that before on Ash Wednesday, or before I was Catholic, would say that to someone, well-meaning but naively thinking they really weren’t aware.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Lenten season in the Catholic church. It kicks off 40 days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. This prepares us for Easter Sunday and Christ’s Resurrection, through which our redemption comes. It is actually 46 days before Easter, but the six Sundays are not counted in the period of fasting. It is not the same date every year, although I have no idea how it’s calculated. The earliest date for Ash Wednesday is February 4, and the latest is March 10. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on a Leap Year day yet. 
Ash Wednesday is NOT a day of obligation, but it’s a very important day to go anyway if you can. I have made it to Ash Wednesday the past couple of years, and I find that it really helps me begin Lent with the right frame of mind.
Why do Catholics put ashes on their forehead?
We wear ashes as a symbol of repentance and humility, and also to remind us of our own mortality. They are not meant as a sign of holiness, but as an acknowledgement that we sin and need God’s forgiveness. For me, they’re a reminder that even though my soul is dirty, God still cleanses me.
Wearing ashes goes back historically to the Old Testament days, where one would wear sackcloth and ashes to express mourning or sorrow for sins committed. Notable examples of this include Job, the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, and the city of Nineveh after Jonah’s visit.
I have heard people say that the wearing of ashes is in direct opposition to the Gospel reading of today, where Jesus talks about fasting in secret rather than publicly. If we wear the ashes, are we no better than the hypocrites Jesus spoke of? It all depends on our attitude. If one wears the ashes as a way to say “Oh, look how holy I am.”, then they’re doing exactly what Jesus warned about, and they’ve received their reward already: the public attention given to them. If one is penitent and humble about wearing the ashes, whether its just through the rest of mass or the rest of the day. then that’s different. It all depends on your attitude and reason for wearing the ashes.
What happens when you receive ashes?
The ashes used are from the burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday. They are blessed during the Ash Wednesday mass, right after the homily is concluded. People are invited to come forward, like the process of receiving communion, and the priest (or Eucharistic Minister if needed) applies the ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, while saying either “Repent from sin and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15) or “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Mass then proceeds with the Liturgy of the Eucharist as normal.
Who can receive ashes?
Anyone can actually receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, Catholic or not, as well as young children who haven’t reached the age of reason yet. The ashes are a sacramental, which is a sacred sign or action in which a blessing is conferred on the recipient. They are not one of the seven sacraments, which are visible signs of divine grace. I received ashes on the Ash Wednesday before I was baptized into the Church actually. Also today at mass, we had a few non Catholics who came with Catholic classmates to the CSO that received ashes as well. And some of my #Cathsorority sisters took their little ones to receive ashes as well.
Ash Wednesday is a day like no other. It provides a great opportunity not only to reflect and repent, but also a chance to rededicate ourselves and our lives back to Christ and to pledge ourselves to follow His teachings passed down by the apostles and governed by the Church today. I hope everyone uses today as a chance to grow in one’s faith more and grow closer to Jesus as well.
Have a blessed Ash Wednesday, everyone.
I relied heavily on these two sites for a lot of the information, as well as the knowledge I learned during RCIA. If I have made a error, please let me know so I can fix it. ~ Zanne