Why Do We Put Ashes on Our Heads?

COMMENTARY: The roots and meaning of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday sends us into the desert of Lent marked with the sign of humility, penitence and mortality. It’s a public sign, and its popularity in America — where Catholics historically attempted to flatten the difference between themselves and the dominant Protestant culture — is a distinct public assertion of belief, or at least identity, embraced even by those with an irregular practice of the faith.
People may not attend Mass every Sunday, but something draws them back to this curious ritual. As with all the days traditionally observed by PACE (Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Christmas and Easter) Catholics, it remains embedded deeply in their sense of the faith, even when regular practice fades.


Biblical Sign

Where does this curious custom come from? People familiar with Scripture know the answer already: Ashes are a sign of mourning in the Bible, often associated with wearing sackcloth, a coarse material. In Job 2:8, Job “sat among the ashes” when he was stricken. When Tamar is raped by Amnon, she “put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe which she wore; and she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went” (2 Samuel 13:19). In Esther Chapter 4, when Mordecai and the Jews learn of the order for their persecution, they put on sackcloth and ashes. Most famously, in Jonah 3:6, when the king of Nineveh is told to repent, “he arose from his throne, removed his robe and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.”

The use of ashes — sometimes merely “dust” — may have several origins. Ashes appear frequently in the Pentateuch as the result of the Temple sacrifice, so they were plentiful and symbolized what remained after an offering was burnt up. Ashes and dust are trodden under feet, and thus lowly and despised. Ashes are symbolic of the dead, and in the Babylonian “Descent of Ishtar,” we learn they are the food of those in the underworld. In Matthew 10:14 (Luke 9:5), Jesus tells his apostles to “shake the dust from your feet” if they are unwelcome somewhere. Finally, there’s the obvious connection between ashes and the dust of the earth from which man is formed in Genesis 2:7. Roman culture also used ashes, with mourners expected to dirty their faces and disorder their hair when grieving.

The penitential use of ashes arises naturally from its link to mourning: We mourn for our sins. As the Psalmist says, “I am a worm and no man,” (22:6), and where does a worm crawl but in the dirt?


Christian Culture

This usage passed from Jewish and Roman culture into the early Christian era, and sprinkling the head with ashes became one of the signs of the penitent. Penance was a public matter, and thus required outward signs. These signs began to coalesce and formalize between the seventh and 11th centuries.

Until the seventh century, Lent began on Quadragesima Sunday, six weeks before Easter Sunday.

The problem with this formula is that Sundays are not days of fasting during Lent. On Sundays, we recall the joy of the Resurrection. Subtracting the Sundays between Quadragesima and Easter, we come up four days short of the 40 days needed for a true period of fasting.

The number 40, of course, is significant as a time of penitence: 40 years of wandering for the Jews, 40 days on the waters of the flood for Noah, 40 days in the desert for Jesus, and so on.

Moving the start of Lent back to the previous Wednesday corrects this, providing a full 40 days of Lenten fasting.

Somewhat confusing matters is the issue of Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which also marked the beginning of Lent in some areas and during certain periods in history. Quinquagesima, as well as the two preceding Sundays — Sexagesima and Septuagesima — were converted to Ordinary Time following Vatican II, although some communities, particularly those using the extraordinary form, still use these names. Quinquagesima may also refer to the period between Easter and Pentecost.

As the first millennium draws to a close, we begin to see the emergence of Ash Wednesday, though we’re not able to point to a time, date and place where it began in earnest.

The Council of Mainz (813) orders the observance of the great litany on the three “Rogation Days” by being “barefooted with ashes.” In Rome, public penitents had to appear at the door of the church in penitential clothing and scattered with ashes on Ash Wednesday to begin their penitential period. Faithful who were not currently undergoing public penance chose to join these practices.

Some time between the seventh and ninth century, this spread throughout the Church, with the people of God entering into a period of penance and fasting, almost certainly complete with a marking of ashes. This general participation appears to have developed elsewhere, before returning to Rome.

The practice emerges from a period in which the faithful were more acutely aware of their sins and the harsh judgment of God.

The faithful were “Children of Wrath,” epitomized in the Dies Irae, which includes the passage:

Oro supplex, et acclinis;
Cor, contritum, quasi cinis;
Gere curam mei finis

That is:

Low I kneel, with heart’s submission;
See, like ashes, my contrition;
Help me in my last condition.

We get a sense of how far the tradition has spread by one of the early references to Ash Wednesday in a

10th-century homily by the great Anglo-Saxon abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men’s heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam. … We read in the books, both in the old Law and in the new, that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads, to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during our Lenten fast.

Ælfric then relates cautionary tales of people who refused to observe Ash Wednesday and suffered ghastly fates, such as the man who skips the Mass and winds up impaled.


Church Practice

This dies cinerum, or “day of ashes,” becomes more common in the 11th century, when Pope Urban II seems to have regularized the practice.

In the 32 canons of the Council of Clermont (1095), we find the faithful forbidden to “eat flesh from Ash Wednesday to Easter.”

By the end of the following century, the observance of Ash Wednesday becomes a universal practice.

Blessings for the ashes enter the Roman Missal, and the common features now familiar to us — ashes made from burning the palms of the previous Palm Sunday and administration, either by sprinkling or making a cross on the forehead or tonsure (the round, shaved area on the top of a monk’s head) — spread throughout the Church.

Strangely, however, The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century exhaustive catalog of the liturgical year and feast days, skips over Ash Wednesday in silence, even though he was known to preach on the subject. Perhaps this has to do with a tale told about St. Jacobus, who, as the archbishop of Genoa, tried to keep peace in the city during the strife between the Guelfs and Ghibellines (these were factions supporting the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, respectively, in the Italian city-states of central and northern Italy).

Allegedly, when Jacobus approached Boniface VIII (a pope later consigned to hell by Dante, a Guelf) for the application of ashes, Boniface instead threw them in his face with the words, “Remember thou art Ghibelline, and with the Ghibellines thy shall return to dust.”

Writing in 1917, Father John Sullivan captured some of the appeal of Ash Wednesday in his book The Externals of the Catholic Church:

Rich and poor, cleric and layman, the tottering old man and the little child, all throng to the altar of God; and with the impressive words: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return,” the priest places upon the head of each those ashes which are such a striking symbol of our frail mortality. As a spiritual writer has said: “He mingles the ashes that are dead with the ashes yet alive.”

There was an effort to mute this evocation of our mortality in the 1969 revision to the rite, which made “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” the primary formula for administering the ashes.

While it has the benefit of refocusing the meaning of Ash Wednesday on our need to turn away from sin, it hasn’t caught on.

Perhaps that’s because the traditional wording is so deeply engrained in our culture, or perhaps it’s because even a society that dreads mortality recognizes the need for an occasional reminder.

Thomas L. McDonald is a regular contributor to

the Register and Church historian.