Ash Wednesday – Things I Need to Know

Here is you go-to list for things you need to know about Ash Wednesday.

This much loved and feared day seems to come out of nowhere each year and leaves many Catholics saying, “Oh, man, is Lent already?” and others asking, “What should I be giving up for Lent?” We have already had a wonderful post about figuring out what you could give up for Lent written by our wonderful Cayla here, but I want to focus on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and gets its unique name from the rite of imposing ashes that is done on this day. These ashes, made from the burnt branches of the Palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, are brought full circle to return us to remembering our own mortality. Lent is 40 days of penance that lead up to the holiest time in the Christian year. Getting our minds, bodies, and souls prepared for the Easter miracle is something that takes 40 days of preparation.


Ashes themselves are a very ancient symbol of penance. We find the use of ashes in the Old Testament as a symbol of penance, sorrow, and conversion. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes upon hearing the decree to kill all of the Jewish people from Persian King Ahasuerus.(Esther 4:1) Job repented in sackcloth and ashes. (Job 42:6) Even Daniel “turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” (Dan 9:3) The great town of Ninevah converted from their ways in penance with ashes after Jonah proclaimed God’s word to them. (Jonah 3:5-6) Jesus Himself referenced ashes in Matt 11:21 saying that if the miracles He performed were witnessed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago as well. The early Church practiced this rite in sprinkling ashes on those who were to do public penance.

We receive ashes on this first day of Lent either in the context of a Mass, or they can be received through a blessing and distribution of ashes according to the Roman Missal. The actual blessing of the ashes must be done by a priest or deacon, but the distribution can be done by lay leaders. The person administering the ashes will say eitherĀ “Repent, and believe the Gospel” or Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The shape of the ashes can actually vary depending on where you live. Most commonly, the holy water is sprinkled in to the ashes to for a psuedo-paste that the person puts on the forehead of the recipient in the shape of a cross. In Latin America, Spain and Italy, the ashes are sprinkled dry on the crown of the head in certain areas. It all depends on local custom, and there are no hard and fast rules regarding this.

How long you leave the ashes on is dependent on the person who receives them. There is also no rule about this, but many Catholics leave the ashes on all day as an outward sign of their faith to others. They can be washed off or wiped off as the individual chooses. Ashes can be brought to the sick where they are as well, ensuring that the blessing of this rite is received by all. All people of every age can receive ashes.

Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation? Actually no. So there is no obligation to attend Mass. BUT, Ash Wednesday, like Good Friday, is a penitential day where fasting and abstinence from meat are required. What the heck does that mean? Well, on these days BOTH fasting and abstinence are required by all those age 14 and older, who are physically able. (In the US, the requirement for both is age 18, while the abstinence from meat alone is 14 according to the USCCB). If one is ill, or has a condition where fasting would not be wise, then one is not obliged to fast.

What does fasting mean? The rules themselves are a little vague, but it entails only eating one meal. There is some talk of “some food” being allowed at other times of the day, and some try to mathematically delve this out to “as long as these two smaller amounts do not add up to a full meal”, but that is not the letter of the law. The point of fasting is to have one’s hunger be a penitential act and an offering up to God. If you are snacking and drinking protein shakes in lieu of eating lunch, you have missed the idea. Can you drink anything besides water? Of course. But don’t go out of your way to drink more or have shakes instead. Ensure that your offering to God is true and open. Miss the meal and offer the suffering up to God as a thank you for all the suffering He did for you giving up His life for you. Sound like a small enough sacrifice you can do?

What about abstaining from meat? What’s the point of that? Well, to honor the sacrifice of His flesh on Good Friday, Catholics do not eat meat on this day as an offering back and of respect. Traditionally, most Catholics would observe this ancient tradition throughout the year, but the requirement is only for during Lent today. Ash Wednesday is included in this offering as the first day of Lent. Catholics must abstain from meat which includes beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. Why is fish not included? Well, this comes from the Latin translation of the law. The word used for meat is carnis which references warm blooded animals of the land, as well as bird of the air. Since fish are cold blooded, they do not count.

Technically, one could eat reptiles, insects, and amphibians, but is that really the point? Also, the law does not forbid the use of meat by-products, such as eggs, milk, cheese, or things using animal fat. But, despite fish and shellfish being allowed, this should not be taken as an opportunity to indulge on lobster, crab, and shrimp. The point is for an offering and a sacrifice, much like a fast. To pig out at a fish fry, or get the “Ultimate Feast” at Red Lobster as a Friday Lenten observation would miss the point.

This Lent, make it a meaningful one. Find something to give up or even to do that will increase your faith. One rule of thumb is to find something that will continue after the Lent has passed. To simply give up chocolate and then resume the binge after does not have a lasting effect on the soul. To have a true conversion of heart, make a change for God that lasts.

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