The ashes we receive on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are an annual reminder of the passage of time and our constant need of repentance, our need to change. The ashes were made from the burning of the palms which had been blessed last Palm Sunday. We had waved palms in praise of Christ at the beginning of Holy Week and now we must call to mind humbly that we have failed him many times since that day. Even in their origin therefore, the ashes show the passing of this world and all created things.
Centuries ago it was the custom, at the beginning of Lent, to sprinkle ashes on public sinners as they came into the church in repentance. Now, we acknowledge publicly that we are all sinners and in need of repentance. Carrying the ashes on our forehead indicates our willingness to do penance for our sins. The traditional words used as the ashes are placed provide a timely reflection: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return." The alternative verse used in many churches focuses our attention on the deep meaning of our Lenten observance: 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel'.