Question: Why do we mark ourselves with Ashes at the beginning of Lent?
Answer: The ashes come from Palm Sunday; palm leaves are burned, the ash collected and then crushed into a fine powder. This points us to Holy Week, the great celebration and culmination of Lent. Ashes as a symbol come to us largely from Scripture. Equivalent to dust, ashes remind us of human flesh, which is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7). They remind us of our mortality; as we are made from the earth, we will return to it. Only God can save us from the death that is eternal.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes, as a sign of his people’s contrition (Daniel 9:3). The Ninevites did the same, as a sign of their intention to turn from sin (Jonah 3:6,10). Ashes are a plea to God for mercy and forgiveness. They are a public admission of guilt, an expression of sorrow for sins, a promise to reform and a pledge to resist temptation in the future. When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are stating publicly that we are sinners who intend to use the impending season of Lent to correct our faults and grow in holiness, so that we might share in Christ's resurrection at Easter.