For over twelve hundred years – so dating way back to the middle ages - on the dies cinerum (day of ashes) faithful followers have approached the altar and received ashes upon their foreheads. Present day several churches offer Imposition of Ashes right on street corners.
The ashes are made from the burnt palm fronds that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water or olive oil, sometimes fragranced with incense but always blessed.
Did you know that there are over forty passages in the Bible associated with ashes? For example, God formed Adam out of the 'dust' of the earth. Jesus healed the blind man with clay (earth and spit).
In Old Testament times people used ashes as a sign of repentance. They would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads, or even mingle them with their food and drink. They did this as an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance.
We mark ourselves with ashes in the sign of the cross as a 'new beginning' at the onset of Lent. It is an opportunity for us to get better.