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Why do we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Christians seem to have taken the use of ashes as a sign of penance from Jewish tradition. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, ashes were originally signs of private penance. But early on they became part of the ritual for public penance.

Pope Urban II (1088-1099) recommended the custom of all receiving ashes to all the churches. Ashes were put on the heads of men and the sign of the cross traced with ashes on the foreheads of women, presumably because their heads were covered.

In the 11th century there appeared a special prayer for the blessing of ashes. And the 12th century gave rise to the rule that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are to be made from the palm branches of the previous year.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Daily Catholic Question for 2/6/2013 Daily Catholic Question for 2/8/2013

Denis and Companions: This martyr and patron of France is regarded as the first bishop of Paris. His popularity is due to a series of legends, especially those connecting him with the great abbey church of St. Denis in Paris. He was for a time confused with the writer now called Pseudo-Dionysius. 
<p>The best hypothesis contends that Denis was sent to Gaul from Rome in the third century and beheaded in the persecution under Emperor Valerius in 258. </p><p>According to one of the legends, after he was martyred on Montmartre (literally, "mountain of martyrs") in Paris, he carried his head to a village northeast of the city. St. Genevieve built a basilica over his tomb at the beginning of the sixth century.</p> American Catholic Blog The saints share in God’s glory, for they are God’s new creation through Jesus Christ. This new creation radiates God’s glory, for God fills the saints with his grace. He shares his glory, his divine life, with those who are willing to receive it through the work and person of Jesus Christ.

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