Should we keep ashes on our forehead all day on Ash Wednesday?

May 17, 2011

Faith and Reasons

CNS photo/Dave Crenshaw, Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

A few people I know have pointed out what seems like a contradiction related to Ash Wednesday.

In the Gospel for that day we’re told to avoid drawing attention to ourselves when we do good works: “[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people might see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 6:1).

But then immediately after that, the priest marks a cross on our foreheads with black ashes. Even though it often ends up looking more like a black smudge than a cross, it’s hard to disguise the fact that you’ve received ashes on Ash Wednesday.

If you go to Mass in the morning or during the day, you have a dilemma: Do you keep the ashes on your forehead and let everyone know you just went to church or do you wipe them off so as not to draw attention to yourself?

It all depends on your motivation, according to Father John Gallas, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul in Loretto, and Father John Paul Erickson, director of the Office of Worship in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“It would be a mistake to think that Jesus forbids or even discourages the outward and public show of religion,” according to Father Gallas. “In Matthew 6:1, he is not discouraging the outward show, but the interior pride that can undermine it.”

We can reveal our faith in different ways such as by wearing a crucifix or even by taking a stand on a moral or ethical issue, he said. This fulfills another thing Jesus says in the Gospel: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Receiving ashes isn’t a good work but a visible sign of sorrow for our sins, Father Erickson said. In the Old Testament, penitents wore sackcloth and ashes to publically atone for sin, he said. The king of Nineveh ordered all residents to wear them after the prophet Jonah foretold mass destruction, and King David wore sackcloth and ashes after committing serious sin, he added.

According to Father Gallas, we wear ashes as a sign of the need for repentance. “The ashes help us accomplish our duty of giving public witness as Catholics, they remind us that people see us as Catholics, and that in our baptism we were marked for Christ.”

Europeans Catholics may avoid the question of whether or not to wear ashes because the tradition there is to sprinkle them on the head rather than mark a cross on the forehead. That’s how Pope Benedict has received them.

Receiving ashes on the forehead is one way we enter into the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday together. Prudence should dictate whether we keep them on or wipe them off after Mass. Ashes aren’t anything to hide but they’re nothing to boast about either.


About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

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  • How’s going to church and putting ashes on your forehead concidered a “good deed?” I mean isn’t going to church a normal several/couple times a week thing? And even at that, your good deeds will not get you into heaven. Read your bible people!!!:) So what if people see you do good deeds, just don’t show off thinking it’ll get you anywhere,(at least not where it really counts!) Just saying;)

    • nick

      Obviously you aren’t Catholic and didn’t go to the liturgy today as that was the entire message. Not letting the left hand see what the right hand is doing. Doing your penance in secrets for the Father who sees in secret. Don’t be a hypocrit or show your good deeds for people to see, etc. Go to church and see rather than reading an article and judging the meaning of the ashes which when placed on your head, you hear ‘turn from sin and follow the gospels’.

  • MonaLisaCorpusChristi

    Just returned from evening mass for Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent. True some catholics attend church regularly but today is a special day of holy obligation to include fasting, prayer and penance. We are reminded to think less of ourselves and our endulgances during this time so we may turn our hearts to the Holy Spirit. Fasting, as in many religions, reminds us to think less of what our self wants so we can turn our hearts to God. By fasting we can also share whatever we can spare to others in need. Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert and we acknowledge his Passion and Sacrifice for us as we prepare for his death (Good Friday – another Holy Day of Obligation) and resurrection (Easter Sunday). We are asked to give up something for Lent but to do so with gladness and Joy which trust me is not easy. Some avoid Meat on Fridays. Others give up something they enjoy like chocolate. Still others may just profess to avoid swearing or hostile language during Lent. All the while not to take glory for ourselves so that others have a higher opinion of us. In the Liturgy it was spoken how in Jesus time some of the Jews prayed aloud and publically or appeared gaunt purposefully as if to appear fasting to get more acclaim. We are warned against this type of behavior. For it is God who will know otherwise. Ash Wedesday provides all the opportunity to privately draw close to God through Prayer, Penance and Self Denial privately and silently so God may grace us in the same way.

    • Betty

      Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are not holy days of obligation though.

  • walker_percy

    “Receiving ashes isn’t a good work but a visible sign of sorrow for our sins, Father Erickson said.”