The custom of using ashes as a mark of penitence dates back to the early centuries of the Christian Church. From as early as the third century when the Church instituted the idea of canonical penance, there had developed a common practice of the penitents, during their time of public penance, being clothed in sackcloth and sitting or kneeling in ashes in the Church courtyard where they begged prayers from those entering the Church for the Eucharist.
About the same time there emerged the practice of baptizing new Christians—usually adults at this period—during the night vigil of Easter. A period of prayer and fasting preceded the baptism and in imitation of the Lord’s forty days in the desert this period was marked to last 40 days. The period leading up to the Easter baptism was marked by a series of exorcisms and other rituals and it was customary for many of those already baptized to join the catechumens (those preparing for baptism) in prayer and fasting. This time of pre-baptismal prayer and fasting evolved into what we call “Lent.”
When Christianity had become the overwhelmingly majority religion of what had once been the ancient Roman world, there were fewer and fewer adult baptisms and the custom of Easter Baptism became more rarely practiced. But the Lenten fast remained and focused more and more on repentance and personal re-conversion. The Bishop reconciled the penitents on Holy Thursday. By the end of the 10th century it was common throughout Western Europe for people to mark the beginning of what had become the Lenten penitential fast by having the priest sprinkle ashes on them to mark them as penitents. This custom was unknown in Rome, however, until 1091 when it was introduced by Pope Urban II. This is only one example of how conservative the Roman Church was in matters liturgical and so many customs that we just take for granted as part of our tradition developed not in the Roman Church but in the Churches of France, Germany, and Spain and only came last to Rome.
One of our early sources for information on the practice of Ashes on Ash Wednesday is the Anglo-Saxon Abbot, Aelric of Eynsham (955-1010). Aelric mentions that the ashes were “strewn” on the heads of the penitents. It was only later that the custom emerged of tracing a cross of ashes on the recipient’s forehead. Even today in Rome and much of Italy the practice is to strew a pinch of ashes on the crown of the penitent’s head rather than trace a cross on their forehead.
Luther favored the retention of the practice of Ashes but it died out among Lutherans. During the reign of King Edward VI Cranmer obtained an Order in Council doing away with Ashes but the practice survived another fifty years or more in some places, especially in the more conservative north of England. Eventually, however, it died out in Anglicanism too. Calvinists—Reformed and Presbyterian—did not retain the practice in their program of Church reform. It never was a practice among Methodists. However, first with the 19th century invention of “Anglo-Catholicism” in the Church of England (and its American cousin, the Episcopal Church), the practice revived. With the liturgical awakening among many mainline Protestants in the mid 20th century there has been a revival of the practice across denominational lines and today you will find many Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists going to Church on Ash Wednesday to have their foreheads marked with the ancient sign of penance.
Unfortunately there is a lot of abuse of this sacramental. Our local Episcopal priest stands at the bus stop giving ashes to morning commuters as they head into the city. In another town I heard of a Catholic priest who left a box of ashes on the counter at the local Post Office so that customers could help themselves. I remember being in Grad School and watching some of my friends—who never went to Mass—having ashes on their foreheads as they ate their cheeseburgers for lunch. Ashes are a beautiful custom but they should not be separated from the liturgical context and, like all Sacraments and Sacramentals, should be distributed only after the Gospel has been read and preached. Sacraments and Sacramentals derive their potential to be channels of grace from the Word and normally they make no sense apart from the Word.