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Catholic Dictionary




A sacramental of the Church used mainly on Ash Wednesday to remind the faithful of death and the necessity of penance and contrition especially during the Lenten season. The use of ashes, expressing humiliation and sorrow, was common in ancient religions and is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Introduced into the early Church by converts from Judaism, for many centuries ashes were imposed only on public penitents, those who had given public scandal. The ashes were used to sprinkle the penitential garb, which they wore on Ash Wednesday as they stood at the church door. Catholics, including priests, now receive ashes that are placed on the head of the penitent accompanied by the words "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel," or "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return." Unused palms from the previous Palm Sunday, burned, furnish the ashes for use on Ash Wednesday.