At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well. In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday.
With the gradual disappearance of the Order of Penitents, the use of ashes became detached from its original context. The focus on personal penance and the Sacrament of Penance continued in Lent, but the connection to Baptism was no longer obvious to most people. This is reflected in the formula that came to be associated with the distribution of ashes: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return." This text focuses on our mortality, a mortality which was answered by the baptismal bestowal of the life which death cannot overcome. Part of the work of the Church over the past 30-40 years has been to re-establish the link between ashes and baptism and the Lenten time of baptismal renewal as well as formation.
Fellow Blogger has this wonderful post about ashes...
Apparently the ashes on the forehead custom was in use by the 10th century. The custom is a token of mourning and repentance. Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis ('Remember man, for dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return'. Gen.3:19).
A letter in 1654 describes how strange Christians looked when they walked around with smudged faces. "The Christian Church hath a longer and more solemn Way of fasting than any other Religion, take Lent and Ember-weeks together. In some Church the Christian useth the old Way of Mortification, by Sackcloth and Ashes, to this Day; which makes me think of a facetious tale of a Turkish ambassador in Venice, who being returned to Constantinople, and asked what he had observed most remarkable in that so rare a City? He answered, that among other Things, the Christian hat a Kind of Ashes, which thrown upon the Head doth presently cure Madness; for in Venice I saw the People go up and down the Streets (said he) in ugly antic strange Disguises, as being in the Eye of human Reason stark mad; but the next Day (meaning Ash-Wednesday) they are suddenly cured of that Madness by a Sort of Ashes which they cast upon their Heads." [sources: The Oxford Companion to the Year; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]
I love the image above... It has sparked so many thoughts.. and since that is what Pastoral Meanderings is about... here are some of them...
Truly sin is our madness. In comparison to the noble place and purpose we occupied in creation, we have indeed gone mad -- both the madness of sin and what it has done and the madness of our inability to fix what sin has done. It is for this reason we are those miserable sinners of our confession (not because we do so poorly at sinning but because we cannot stop ourselves nor can repair the damage that sin has done to us and through us).
If sin is our madness, it is cured only by the Spirit who brings forth in our hearts the genuine repentance that only God can accomplish, the genuine faith that clings not to works or piety or self but to Christ alone, and the genuine redemption which is born not of our sacrifice but only to the blood that has the power to atone for the sins of the whole world.
This morning we had some who came early for their cure. Later we will have many more (Lutherans are still a bit uncomfortable about wearing this outward sign where just anyone might see and for a whole day, at that). The ashes are not the madness, they are the cure (here seeing the ashes are outward sign of inward contrition and repentance).
Personally I find the most poignant moments when parents bring their infants and toddlers to receive ashes. We do not like the image of our mortality placed upon our children. But they bring them because they know that these too are marked with death and captive to sin, unable to free themselves, unless Jesus frees them. They bring them to baptism, they bring them to the worship services of God's House, and they bring them to the ashes -- all because they know that it is Christ alone who can cure the madness, adopt the orphan, forgive the sin, redeem the lost, enliven the dead, and give the eternal to those only temporal.