FAQ: What is the significance of Ash Wednesday and ashes on the forehead?
Gesture of Repentance and Humility
Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, a commentary on Lutheran Worship, one of our
Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s [LCMS] hymnals, says this about ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Other customs may be used, particularly the imposition of ashes on those who wish it. This ancient act is a gesture of repentance and a powerful reminder about the meaning of the day. Ashes can symbolize dust-to-dust-ness and remind worshipers of the need for cleansing, scrubbing and purifying. If they are applied during an act of kneeling, the very posture of defeat and submission expresses humility before God.”
Ashes from Palm Sunday Branches
The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a more recent custom among most LCMS congregations, although some have done it for decades. It is customary to derive the ashes from the burned palm branches used the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Experience will show, however, that in obtaining ashes this way, it doesn’t take many ashes to “ash” a whole congregation. Like sin, they are very dirty and go a long way. One palm leaf produces enough ashes for several years.
To Dust You Shall Return
Usually the pastor takes the ashes on the end of his thumb and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each worshiper, saying these words: “Remember: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This follows most effectively prior (or as part of) the Service Corporate Confession and Absolution on pp. 290-291 of Lutheran Service Book. –LCMS Frequently asked questions
Informative article on the customary use of ashes: