We have to remember that Jesus was speaking of hypocrites who used signs to make themselves look like they were fasting or praying or offering alms. Jesus was not speaking to those who are faithful followers of his.
The Church has designated Ash Wednesday as the day for sinners to recognize who they are: sinners. The ashes are a sign of our frail, human nature, marred by sin. The ashes are a witness to the world that all humanity is in deed of salvation through Christ.
So if one is faithful to Jesus, then we wear and keep our ashes on our foreheads to witness to the rest of the world. Some people who know that we are faithful followers of Christ in the Catholic Church, will question why we do not have ashes on our foreheads on this important, yet not, holy day of obligation.
Then there will be others who race to church to get ashes and go around showing everyone they have ashes on their foreheads. Some people who know that they do not faithfully follow Christ and only “practice” their faith at Christmas and Easter, will be surprised and may even say, “You’re Catholic?” These may be the hypocrites that Jesus is talking about. I say may be because we cannot read their hearts and their intentions, only God does.
So, if you are not a hypocrite in your faith, wear your ashes in faith and know that you are making a witness to God, the Church, and your neighbor that you are a believer in Christ. This witness places much responsibility on us for we are letting the world know that we follow Christ in a world that does not want anything about God, or Christ, or religion, or faith, to be seen in public.
**Blessed Ashes: **Ashes, as a Jewish sign of penitence, were accepted by Christians and are used now primarily as a Sacramental on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Derived from burning the palms from the previous year, the ashes are blessed and imposed on the faithful (in America on the forehead) during the ceremony after the Homily of the Mass. Outside Mass they are blessed and imposed during the Liturgy of the Word.
This outward popular symbol of private and public sorrow, sadness, or penance is a proof of humilty, the result of human frailty, a remembrance of our mortality, that we are made of dust and will return to dust. However, a second formula also allows another concept more in keeping with the Lenten period, namely, penance, contrition, and the striving after perfection. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
In the early Christian era ashes were imposed on public penitents, sprinkled on their penitential clothes. When the custom was discontinued, the present rite appeared.
On Ash Wednesday, the opening day of Lent, in keeping with its penitential spirit, Catholics observe a day of fasting and abstinence.
Dictionary of the Liturgy, Catholic Book Publishing Company, New York, 1989, pp 43-44.