I’ve written posts before in which I explained the source of the ashes that we receive today (the burnt remains of the previous year’s palms from Passion Sunday). I’ve always loved that image, with its reminder of the cyclical dimension of the liturgical seasons of the ecclesiastical year.
Why do we line up to get ashes on our foreheads? Many pastors will tell you that the most crowded Masses and services in parishes are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I think that ties in to our basic human understanding of our mortality and the reality of suffering in our lives.
The ashes that are placed on our foreheads are a celebration and reminder of our finality, and a sign of mourning and repentance to God. One of the formulae that the priest may say as he places the ashes is from the Book of Genesis: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”