Ashes symbolize the life cycle, grief, and penitence.
The ashes used to mark a cross on a person’s forehead symbolizes the belief that God created man from ashes and that man returns to ashes after death.
The ritual is usually marked by a priest saying:
“Remember, man is dust, and unto dust you shall return”.
The ashes are also seen as a mark of sorrow and grief for personal sins and as a symbol of repentance. Some like to keep the ashes on their foreheads all day, but it is also common to wipe the ashes off after mass.
The ritual of Ash Wednesday and the ensuing period of Lent is predominantly observed by Catholics, but people outside the religion also use it as an opportunity to give up a single indulgence such as chocolate for the period of time.
Referring to the current Holy Year of Mercy, the Pope explained that the Jubilee is a time of:
“For conversion, so that our heart can become bigger, more generous, more like a child of God, with more love. But I tell you that if the Jubilee doesn’t arrive to the pockets, it’s not a true Jubilee,” he said, adding that “this is in the Bible, it’s not the Pope who invented this.”
Francis spoke to pilgrims present in St. Peter’s Square for his general audience on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Church’s Lenten season.