The worshipper goes forward and kneels before the pastor. He prays, “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.” Then he dips his thumb in a small dish of ashes and, with the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” marks the sign of the cross on the worshipper’s forehead.
The origins of our modern Lenten practices go back to the earliest days of the church when potential converts first underwent a fast of 40 hours before their baptisms at the Easter Vigil—soon extended to a period of prayer, fasting, and contemplation lasting 40 days. (Biblical models for this included Noah’s time on the Ark and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as well as Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.)
Sometime around the ninth or tenth century, this 40-day Lenten discipline merged with another service the church had developed several hundred years earlier to help sinners embody their repentance. (The first mention of Ash Wednesday by name is in a seventh-century service book, the Gelasian Sacramentary.) Those who had fallen into what the early church considered serious sin—everything from committing adultery to serving in the military to performing magic and occult practices—after confessing that sin were enrolled in an “order of penitents” until they had made restitution. In many ways, they were treated similarly to converts preparing for baptism, as they sat separately from the rest of the congregation, sometimes dressed in special clothing, and did not participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. Also, they wore ashes on their heads, drawing from the biblical precedent and imagery of verses such as Numbers 19:9,17; Hebrews 9:13; Jeremiah 6: 26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13.
No one knows exactly who decided that the imposition of ashes to remind people of their mortality and need for repentance would be a useful spiritual practice, not simply for self-avowed penitents, but for all believers. But by the 11th century, the practice became a common marker of the beginning of Lent in the Western church. (The Eastern Orthodox have never adopted the practice, though they have their own versions of Lenten fasting and discipline.) Along with it soon developed the celebratory eating and drinking on the day before Lent, which we now know as Shrove Tuesday (and which, in many modern Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, remains a highly-anticipated day for all-church pancake suppers!)