The ashes imposed on our foreheads during liturgies on Ash Wednesday retrace the sign of the cross our parents and godparents made on our forehead the day of our baptism, and the sign the priest or deacon made with the sacred chrism immediately after the baptismal water washed us into God’s family. If we have been confirmed, the bishop or his delegate also anointed our foreheads with sacred chrism.
The grimy residue of a cross on our head reminds us midweek that we have been claimed for Christ by our baptism. It also helps us prepare for the joyful celebration of Easter by initiating a period of penance and fasting. Ashes have been used for penance and sorrow for sins since the days of the Old Testament and have been incorporated into Ash Wednesday ceremonies in the Catholic Church since the first millennium.