Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgical Year

A correspondent writes:

How long does one leave the ashes from the Ash Wednesday service on ones forehead?

Is it wrong to wipe them off?

It is not wrong to wipe them off.

As far as how long one leaves them on, there is no standard answer. It is a matter of your choice.

As a matter of public witness, I would recommend that you leave them on until you are done going out in public on Ash Wednesday.

I would defintely wipe them off by the morning of the Thursday following Ash Wednesday.

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Brad Haas February 10, 2005 at 7:20 am

I agree with Jimmy, but I decided it’s probably courteous to wipe them off if you get a haircut, as I did yesterday. :(

StubbleSpark February 10, 2005 at 3:44 pm

I left them on all day during work yesterday and all I got were weird looks. Once, guy came up to me and just stared at my forehead like I was made of wood. I’m not made of wood. I’m made of dust. And to dust I shall return…

Mary February 10, 2005 at 5:49 pm

A co-worker got to explain to various co-workers from China, Korea, and India.
(I got hit by a crisis before the lunch-time service.)

Bill February 17, 2005 at 6:49 am

I have a co-worker who stopped going to daytime Ash Wednesday mass because she got tired of coming back to work and people making comments. Personally, I welcome any questions. I see it as an opportunity to educate the ignorant. Besides, Lent is about sacrifice, and what a small one it is, comparatively speaking, to have to put up with any odd stares and snide comments for one day.

Jimmy Akin February 17, 2005 at 7:00 am

My problem is the number of people at Catholic Answers who are . . . well, . . . Catholic.
I don’t get the questions on Ash Wednesday that I’d otherwise love to answer.

PNP, OP March 1, 2006 at 3:04 am

“As a matter of public witness, I would recommend that you leave them on until you are done going out in public on Ash Wednesday.”
Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting […] But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting”(Matt 6).

mary March 1, 2006 at 6:24 am

PNP said: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting […] But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting”(Matt 6). Hmmmmm…”
This is completely different. You are not somehow displaying the fact that you are fasting or giving alms. Wearing the ashes is a SIGN, like wearing a cross, or Jews wearing a yarmulke.
Fasting and almsgiving might say YOU are doing something great. There is nothing great about admitting that you are dust.
Besides, as so many others have noted, it gives you a chance to explain your faith.

bill912 March 1, 2006 at 6:41 am

You’re both right. It all depends on your motivation for wearing the ashes in public.

Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP March 1, 2006 at 8:46 am

My first attempt at this is lost in cyberspace…oh well…
A few things:
1). I have to believe that since the Church saw fit to put this partiular reading from Matthew on Ash Wednesday then we are to take Jesus’ teaching on fasting and public displays of piety as directly relevant to Ash Wednesday and Lent.
2). The tendency is spritiualize this gospel passage is just odd. To argue that Jesus means “inward cleaniness” when he says “wash your face” simply ignores the passage. He’s talking about the actual, hypocritical practices, the outward behaviors of the Pharisees. He’s explicitly condemning our habit of playing at being holy, pretending, by use of public display, to be something we’re not. He says clearly that good, honest prayer, fasting and almsgiving will be done in secret, hidden from view, and out of temptation’s reach.
3). The argument that the ashes are powerful evangelical signs is a good one. However, in my prudential judgment (my judgment for me!) the temptation to prideful display and spiritual athleticism is too great. So, I washed my face.
Everytime I see someone with ashes, the first response to pop into my head is: “Wash your face! Stop being a Pharisee who needs to show us that you’re fasting!”
OK…now I have to work on not being judgmental for Lent…%$#@!
Fr. Philip, OP

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B. March 1, 2006 at 9:36 am

It would definitely be showmanship if one were to wear ashes on days when no other Catholics were wearing them. Receiving the ashes on Ash Wednesday is something we Catholics do as a crowd.
I think most non-Catholics who see us wearing ashes realize, “That’s a Catholic.”
In similar fashion, while we must not show off that we are praying, and while we must take time to pray in secret, we also must pray publicly together as at Mass. Our Lord is not discouraging us from that. It was his own custom to join in the weekly synagogue prayer services.
If you’re keeping the ashes on to show off, then humbly admit it to yourself and to God. That, however, does not cancel the value of our keeping the ashes on as a sign that we are members of the Catholic Church and on this day we collectively acknowledge our sinfulness while professing our repentance and faith.

Tim J. March 1, 2006 at 9:48 am

Noted, Father Philip, but I want to weigh in with those who find the evangelical aspect of the ashes to be a strong enough reason to leave them on.
I live in an area where Catholics are a minority, so the ashes help people to realize how many Catholics actually live in this area (more than they think).
The ashes are also a great conversation starter. One of the trickiest things about evangelizing is bringing the conversation around to religion in a way that is graceful and natural rather than forced and uncomfortable. The ashes offer an opportunity to do that.
I find that people who are not that familiar with the Catholic tradition of Ash Wednesday are usually interested in finding out more about it.
Most non-Catholics will not be aware that I am fasting, so my wearing the ashes will not draw their attention to that.
I wear the ashes to show that I am a Catholic and because it gives me opportunities for evangelism that I might not ordinarily have.

fr. andy March 1, 2006 at 9:54 am

As the Holy Father put it in his encyclical letter: “love makes us a we” You mourn for your sins, and this is expressed by actions such as having ashes on your head. No one except our Father in heaven should be able to tell you are mourning, either by the cross on your forehead or by a sad spirit. So, wipe clean your forehead before leaving Ash Wednesday Mass. Most importantly, be cheerful and grateful because of how much God has done for you, not because you deserved it, but all for love. Having ashes on your head is a good expression of morning for sin, but an even better one, in fact a necessary one is to wear a smile, to be a positive cheerful presence at home, swchool or the workplace, to forgive others, and to help someone in need. Happy Lent!!

Fred K. March 1, 2006 at 11:45 am

2 Cor 11:30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
I’m with St. Paul: I’m ready to boast of my mortality, my sinfulness, and the hope of the cross. But each to his own. The choice of whether to wear or wipe the ashes is a great opportunity for Christians to exercise their prudential judgement and I’m not impressed by homilists that attempt to impose their judgement on lay people that know best the context of their own public lives and workplace.
On a related question, the pastor of a parish I visited today said that children under the age of reason would not be signed because they are not sinners. Again, I was disappointed to see a priest imposing his individual judgement as if it were canon law. Children are dust, will return to dust, and bear the stain of Original Sin.
I remember the first time I saw my babies with ashes. It really caused me to think about their destiny in a way that I hadn’t done before.

Chris S. March 1, 2006 at 12:35 pm

Today at my 3PM Queue meeting at work.

“What’s up with your forehead?”
Me: “It’s Ash Wednesday.”
Me: “It’s Ash Wednesday.”
“Oh, I see.”
Since we were in a meeting though, that’s all that was said. The other attendee didn’t comment, but she has a very French name, so I’m sure she at least knew what it was, regardless of if she’s practicing or not.

anon March 1, 2006 at 12:48 pm

“I’m not impressed by homilists that attempt to impose their judgement on lay people that know best the context of their own public lives and workplace.”
Amen, and thank you! I would only add that I am not impressed by ANYONE, homilist or otherwise, who presumes to think they know best on matters that are not in contradiction to Church teaching. If it works for you to keep them on, do so; if not, don’t. Why are we even discussing this?
In my town, over 3/4 of the population is Catholic. If I wiped the ashes off my forhead as I was leaving Mass – something I have nEVER heard of in 60 years of being Catholic – as “fr. andy” suggests, I would stand out as calling attention to myself, thinking I was better than everyone else, or perhaps that I was embarrassed by my faith, etc.
Hmmm, I just now thought of that last point. Some people may want to wipe them off because they are embarrassed to be making a spectacle of themselves. In that case, if we deny Christ, will He deny us, or is that verse to be ignored?
Anyway, again I say, do what you want!

Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP March 1, 2006 at 2:38 pm

“In that case, if we deny Christ, will He deny us, or is that verse to be ignored?”
But how is doing what Jesus told us to do a denial of him?
“When you fast […] wash your face.” I just don’t see any other interpretation.
The text of the reading…the actual words of the gospel from Matthew this morning…explicitly warn us against the very kind of public displays of penance that some here are defending.
Fr. Philip, OP
P.S. And if preaching the gospel in front of me is a kind of “imposing,” well…geez…I’m very guilty of that!

bill912 March 1, 2006 at 3:09 pm

Father Philip: I think that our Lord, in the passage from today’s Gospel, may have been using hyperbole to warn us against spiritual pride, against doing things so that we can say to others–and ourselves–“Look how holy I am!” St. Thomas Becket always wore his full episcopal regalia, which, I understand, was quite ostentacious. He claimed he did it for the benefit of the people. It certainly could have appeared that he was engaging in pride. But at his death, it was discovered that underneath he wore a hair shirt. The outward appearance was for the people; the inner penitence was for him. I think that everyone should examine his own motivations and try to discern his true motive in wearing ashes in public.

Louise March 1, 2006 at 5:44 pm

Fr. Philip, are you suggesting that when Jesus said, “When you fast, […] wash your face.” that he was giving a cryptic message to future Christians about Ash Wednesday? Sorry to be harsh, but that sounds silly to me. I am familiar with the different sense of scripture, but this doesn’t seem to fit into any of them.
I washed my face on the morning of Ash Wednesday, before going to church. I always took that verse to mean try to look good and healthy when you’re fasting, and not hungry and suffering. (and not to complain, etc)
Furthermore, Ash Wednesday is one of those days that many Catholics who are not regular mass attendees actually show up. So it’s not like I’m bragging that I’m so holy I went to a daily mass or something–everybody went today. And, if i am remembering correctly, you don’t even have to be in a state of grace to receive the ashes, right? So the ashes on my forehead are not some kind of holier-than-thou thing at all.

Puzzled March 1, 2006 at 11:25 pm

We all received ashes in the sign of the Cross tonight, even the little ones who laughed, thinking Pastor was playing with them.
Ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday.
As I wrote on my blog:

Karen March 2, 2006 at 3:03 am

My problem is the number of people at Catholic Answers who are . . . well, . . . Catholic.
I don’t get the questions on Ash Wednesday that I’d otherwise love to answer.

My problem is that Mass was at 7PM. And it is too late to do anything here at 8PM, when Mass was over, except maybe go somewhere for a bite to eat. BUT we got about 3-4″ of fresh slippery snow right during Mass, which means if you were going to drive, you’d better drive straight home in case it gets worse, and my car slipped a few times just going home. So I got home and looked briefly into the mirror and witnessed to myself ;-P and wiped them off. :-(

Karen March 2, 2006 at 4:17 am

Fasting is a personal sacrafice; it’s between you and God. If you make a display of it, you’ll get your reward on Earth–by enjoying the display you make.
Proclaiming the truth that we are dirt is proclaiming a truth. Yes it is humiliating but it is simply the truth, shown symbolically.
Certainly we aren’t required to keep our faith under wraps or fear that others will identify us as *gasp* Catholic . Certainly we aren’t to cower away lest we scandalize people who don’t want to acknowledge that Catholics exist.

Robin L. in TX March 3, 2006 at 9:28 am

Our Fr. Joseph stated that ASh Wednesday is a call to public penance. Reminded me of God sending Jonah to Nineveh. In that case, the public witness would count as much as the interior disposition.
Living in a country where obesity and abundance is a problem, where we kill millions of our unborn, and the infirm and elderly by euthanasia, makes the Divine Mercy chaplet, and a public wearing of ashes a much needed necessity.
The challenge lies in the question, “Was anyone surprised by my wearing ashes, or did they know by my daily actions, words, and bearing that I was a committed Christian beforehand? If they are surprised, and don’t notice a Christian demeanor in me afterward, then I would be the cause of scandal to believers and non-believers both.

Lindsey March 4, 2006 at 3:18 pm

Someone mentioned children and ashes. The priest marked my children with ashes but said to them, “God bless you.”
On that note, do you make your children get ashes? My 5 year old and 2.5 year old weren’t thrilled but complied. They might whine louder next year so I want to know what approach to take.

Tricia March 4, 2006 at 5:53 pm

I attended AM Mass and then left my ashes on all day. I did try to analize my reaons for doing so. In the end I felt that it was not to show off to people that I was holy but to acknowledge publicly that I am a sinner. People at my small office know I am Catholic but I got a couple of opportunities to comment. I agree with the reader who quoted the verse “Whoever acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” I think one of the wonderful things that is special about the Catholic Church is all of the sacramentals and the sheer physicality of it.

Louise March 4, 2006 at 7:38 pm

I have a 3-year-old and he got ashes willingly but they got wiped off pretty quickly. But my opinion on kids is that since ashes are not required for anyone, even adults, then let the kids choose whether or not they want them. I’m sure at a certain age you might want them to participate though. Since my son is only 3 I didn’t care too much yet.
You could try rewarding them for receiving the ashes willingly…

PaulZ March 8, 2006 at 10:04 pm

I admire those who can wear their ashes publicly and seek out opportunities to evangelize. Every Shrove Tuesday, I start to dread the next day and the fact that I’ll be wearing my ashes out in public; the puzzled stares, the weird looks. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever mentioned them to me…because I look so uncomfortably self-conscious! Yet I’d feel guilty wiping them away. To me, it’s a cross that I have to bear for a few hours, unlike a priest who wears his collar in public everywhere he goes and is subjected to much worse. Anyway, I commend those of you who are able to use this occasion to witness.

Tim J. March 9, 2006 at 5:33 am

Paul –
Unless I misread Jimmy’s post, you should feel no obligation to “wear” the ashes, and you should certainly not feel guilty if you wipe them off.
The important thing is to receive them in a spirit of true repentance.

Kathie March 11, 2006 at 3:11 pm

Just curious –
I’m going through RCIA right now and they told us that children should NOT be brought forward to get ashes before they have their first communion because they aren’t haven’t experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation yet and therefore aren’t really “accountable” for their sins, but here I’m reading that children as young as 3 got them –
Is this something that’s left up to the individual parishes?

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B. March 11, 2006 at 4:43 pm

Kathie, there’s no Church ban against children receiving ashes. However, accepting the ashes is a sign of repentance, which is something that the youngest children probably don’t have a clue about.

Fred February 19, 2007 at 9:40 pm

In Nineva, the folks put sackcloth and ashes on themselves and their animals. I presume that the animals couldn’t repent either (the repentence was that of their owners). Symbols are polyvalent – they don’t have only one meaning, but layers.
I let my kids get ashes because it reminds me that they don’t belong to me and that their destiny is the cross of Christ. As such, it also reminds me of their baptisms.

Ali February 21, 2007 at 1:47 pm

I am an Episcopalian, and I personally don’t think Christ wanted us to draw attention to ourselves by going around with ashes on our foreheads.
It seems like Catholics are so quick to talk about lent and what they are giving up. Every Friday, I hear complaints from Catholics about not eating meat. Please…….enough already. What a big sacrafice!
If others don’t know you are Christian by the way you live your life then I doubt that the ashes you wear on your forehead will make any difference. It only makes me realize that you miss the whole point.

boy spank doctor January 1, 2008 at 6:27 pm

Stay so good and many people come back – sure

gay spank January 7, 2008 at 2:45 am

Doesn`t matter what you say, but how…!! But you said it well

Louis Hacker January 28, 2008 at 2:05 pm

The area I used to live in was almost entirely Catholic. One Ash Wednesday and a friend and I went to Mass in the morning and received the ashes. At noon we went to a cafeteria for our one meal.
After we sat down and began our meal my friend started to laugh. When I asked what he was laughing about he said, “You don’t notice anything odd?” When I told him that I didn’t, he told me that almost everyone were ashing but were also eating meat! Tney seemed to be avid for the display but not very concerned about the little sacrifice for the day.

Anonymous February 6, 2008 at 9:41 am

do you say anything back to the father after he applies ashes?

frankie February 7, 2008 at 1:06 pm

I made certain the person cutting my hair, yesterday afternoon, did NOT wash off my ashes.
She was very understanding and in this baptist community in which I live, that’s really saying something.

ShawnMTierney February 25, 2009 at 6:21 am

I want to thank everyone for their comments – I recieved my ashes this morning (usually recieve them in the evening) and started to think, “is it better to leave them on, or wash them off before work?” Like many, I do honestly want to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s not always as clear to me as it should be.
In this case, I don’t want to be showing off by any means, or brag because I went to Church this morning and recieved ashes. And the passage quoted which discusses washing your face when fasting definitely came to mind.
But at the same time, I don’t want to wash my face with the motivation of avoiding embarrasment, difficult quesitons, or stares.
So in the end, because I personally dislike calling attention to myself, and all things aside would rather wash my ashes off, I decided not to wash them off before work.
Thanks again,

Heather February 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Being Christian isn’t about being comfortable – it’s about stepping out in faith, which usually removes us from our comfort zone. So, where does the wearing of ashes fall in relation to that? If the Church hasn’t created a specific teaching on it, that means to me it doesn’t necessarily matter. What does matter is one’s motivation. Perhaps the only significance of this issue is for us to relfect upon what the ashes mean to us and from there consider why it is we – as individuals – wear them. We all know in our heart – the part of it where God resides – whether or not we should individually wear them. Finding quiet amongst the noise that is our life – a difficult task these days I find – is a wonderful way of getting in touch with what is TRULY on our hearts. Once you take that time to just be one with Him – you’ll have your answer as to whether or not to leave them on.

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