Fr. Scott Haynes
On Ash Wednesday, Christians have ashes put on their forehead – a practice that has been going on for centuries. In the earliest Christian centuries – from 200 to 500 A.D. – those guilty of serious (mortal) sins of a public nature (e.g., murder, fornication, adultery, apostasy, and public renunciation of one’s faith) were excluded from the reception of Holy Communion while they did acts of public penance: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and putting on “sackcloth and ashes.” These outward actions expressed interior sorrow and repentance. The customary time to welcome these penitents back to the reception of Holy Communion, after having completed their Lenten penances, was during Holy Week. Around the 10th century, the practice arose of marking the foreheads of those taking part in the ritual. The practice caught on and spread, and in 1091 Pope Urban II decreed:
“On Ash Wednesday everyone, clergy and laity, men and women, will receive ashes.”
A 12th-century Missal indicates the words used when putting ashes on the forehead were:
“Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” (Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris).
The phrase echoes God’s words of reproach after Adam, according to the narrative in the Bible, disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.