This is an excerpt from an article from Doctor Richard Bucher about Ash Wednesday www.orlutheran.com/html/ash.htm
Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes) is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his Lives of the Saints, he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” Aelfric then proceeds to tell the tale of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes and was accidentally killed several days later in a boar hunt! This quotation confirms what we know from other sources, that throughout the Middle Ages ashes were sprinkled on the head, rather than anointed on the forehead as in our day.
As Aelfric suggests, the pouring of ashes on one’s body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material) as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning is an ancient practice. It is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. What is probably the earliest occurrence is found at the very end of the book of Job. Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3. In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
I appreciate the historical references but wonder if an “outer manifestation of innder repentance” is possible in a culture where sin is looked at as a “mistake” or a failing or worse yet like a computer problem – gigo.