If you have been wondering why half of the people on the streets seem to have missed a spot in their daily hygienic rituals, you must not be Catholic. Today is Ash Wednesday, a significant day in the Holy Calender that marks the beginning of Lent.
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults.
An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job. Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes."
Ash Wednesday marks the start of a 43-day period which is an allusion to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, while not specifically instituted in the Bible text, the period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the Golden calf. In Victorian England, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainments.
So, if you see an ashy pedestrian, know that they are likely a devout christian... or they made a series of questionable decisions yesterday for Mardi Gras.