Why do we receive ashes?

Every Ash Wednesday I see a post explaining the type of ash crosses one may receive on Ash Wednesday. There is the OCD version where it is a perfect cross no mistakes, the first in line where it isn’t too much or too little, Father’s revenge that covers most of the forehead, the blob that looks nothing like a cross, or the hasty that is just one swipe across the forehead. I know after Mass I will be and I’m sure many of you will check to see what the ashes look like on your forehead in the mirror.

However, what does the cross of ashes on our forehead truly show? How does receive ashes help us in our spiritual lives? I must say that it is easy to identify the Catholics on Ash Wednesday, but this is not the reason we receive ashes. We come forward to receive ashes to remind us of a few things. First, we are reminded that our life here on earth is not forever that one day we will all return to ashes. One of the options given shows us this fact, “remember that you are dust and to dust, you shall return.”

Secondly, the one giving ashes can say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Coming forward to receive ashes reminds us of our need to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel. That too is the point of what we are called to do during Lent. Jesus challenges his followers to pray, give alms and fast in secret and not publicly. Lent isn’t so much about what we give up, the ashes we receive on our foreheads, rather lent is about that interior change of heart, that interior turning away from sin and following Christ.

The Prayer fasting and alms-giving that we do, the ashes that we receive remind us of the need to turn to God and receive his forgiveness. My hope for all of us is that during this lent we can use the things we are giving up, the fasting from meat on Fridays and all of the other spiritual practices we may pick up, may not just be checking off items on a list but rather changing our hearts and growing closer to Jesus. As you come up to receive these ashes, don’t worry so much about what they look like, rather ask the Lord to help you repent and believe in the Gospel.

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