Catholics and some Protestants celebrate Ash Wednesday.
The name “Ash Wednesday” comes from the blessed ashes that are applied to the foreheads of the faithful.
Being marked with ashes is a public acknowledgement that one is a sinner, as we all are.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the liturgical season of Lent. It is a day when Catholics go to mass and in addition to receiving the word of God and the Eucharist we receive ashes on our foreheads in the shape of a cross.
We receive them as a sign of the beginning of the season of Lent, the season of penance and preparation for Easter.
Ash Wednesday History
In the fourth century, public penitents dressed in sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes to show their repentance. The practice of public penance gradually fell into disuse from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Instead, it was replaced by private confession and private penance. Our current celebration of Ash Wednesday began to develop in the eleventh century. By this time had become customary to receive ashes at the beginning of Lent. The Christian use of ashes is rooted in the Jewish custom of sprinkling ashes on the head as a sign of repentance.
Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. It is, however, a spiritually and liturgically significant celebration which sets the penitential tone for the next forty days before Easter.
Significance of Ashes
The ashes are a symbol of penance and reconciliation. Ashes are used in the Catholic Church not only on Ash Wednesday, but also in the rites for the consecration of an altar and for the dedication of a church. The ashes are the burnt palms used on Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday of the previous year. These palms are burned in the Easter fire, lit on the Saturday night that marks the transition from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. Many parishes allow for you to bring back your palms so that they may be used on the next Ash Wednesday.
Distribution of Ashes
On Ash Wednesday, ashes may be distributed during Mass, usually after the homily, or outside of Mass. When done outside of Mass ashes are distributed as part of a Liturgy of the Word. Ashes are typically placed on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross. The traditional formula for placing the ashes on the forehead is, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” However, today you may also hear the formula, “Turn away from sin and live the gospel.”
Why So Public?
It might seem that publicly wearing ashes on our foreheads is against the spirit of the Gospel. In the Ash Wednesday Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), we hear Jesus say:
When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
If this is the case, why do Catholics make a public display of wearing ashes?
The answer is that Catholics do not receive the ashes as a sign of penance. Yes, the ashes are received on a day of fasting, and therefore are associated with fasting. However, the ashes are a reminder to us that we will one day die, and that we must repent. When we receive the ashes, the words we hear either remind us that we will turn to dust or urge us to turn away from sin. Therefore, by publicly wearing ashes, we are not trying to draw attention to our fasting. Rather, we are reminding ourselves and the world around us of the importance of turning away from sin and of the fact that this life does not last forever. We cannot live as though we will never die. That is why the second reading on Ash Wednesday (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2) proclaims:
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.
Rules for Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence from meat. This is one of the Precepts of the Church, which Catholics must follow. This means that Roman Catholics may eat one full meal, and they may eat two small meals as well. The two smaller meals must not equal one full meal.
There are exceptions to these rules. Everyone 14 years old or older must not eat meat or foods made with meat. Younger children may eat meat. Those from ages 18-59 must fast. If you are younger than 18 or older than 59, you do not have to fast. Women who are pregnant or nursing also do not have to fast. Furthermore, if you have a health problem that makes fasting unhealthy for you, you do not have to fast.
If you are exempt from the fasting rules, it is a good idea to substitute another penance.
Lent is a great time to go to confession and turn away from sin especially any mortal sins you’ve committed. To get started with that learn to go to confession and learn the conditions for a mortal sin.