Why do the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and the Orthodoxs which I am of the Greek Orthodox faith do not.
Dr. Alexander Roman firstname.lastname@example.org
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday in the West reflects its own particular, liturgical tradition of repentance that developed differently from that in the East.
As the ashes are imposed, these words are said, "Remember, man, that you are dust - and to dust you will return!"
It is a sobering reminder of death and of the fleeting nature of human life.
The actual tradition of being marked with ashes comes from Judaism and was an outward statement that one was repenting for sins in "sackcloth and ashes."
Sackcloth was the humblest material for one's attire and the ashes represented a symbol of Gehenna itself which later became "hell" in Christian terms.
Gehenna was a very real, smouldering place where refuse was burned and which was covered, therefore, in ashes. To sign oneself with ashes was to publicly defame oneself literally as "garbage" for having committed sin.
It was, in short, the ultimate by way of personal repentance, adopted for the Western Lent.
Serious public sinners in the East also donned sackcloth, including those who made the Great Fast a major theme of their entire lives such as hermits and desert-dwellers.
The Great Fast in the East begins following "Forgiveness Vespers" at which point priest and people bow to each other asking formally for one another's forgiveness for past wrongs.
A shadow of this practice is still preserved in the West on "Shrove Tuesday" which is better known as "Mardi Gras." "Shrove" is the old English meaning "to be shriven" or "to be shorn" of one's sins in confession.
One not only made pancakes on that day to get rid of all dairy products in the home before Lent, one also went to confession, whence the name, to ask for forgiveness of all one's sins etc.
Unfortunately, boisterous Mardi Gras and carnival celebations ("carne" or "meat" and "vale" or "good-bye" = "carnival" or "good-bye meat") have tended to overshadow what should be a spiritual preparation for the beginning and duration of Lent/the Great Fast.