When is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter. Since Easter falls on a different date every year, so does Ash Wednesday.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the preparatory season of Lent. The word "Lent" derives from the Middle English word for “spring” but it holds a deeper meaning of change for Catholics.
During the Ash Wednesday service, the ashes of the blessed palms that were distributed on Palm Sunday the previous year are used. The priest blesses the ashes, sprinkles them with holy water, and people come forward to receive them. The priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and then makes the shape of the cross on each person’s forehead while saying, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 2:7) or “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
The Church calls us to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday (as well as Good Friday). Catholics who are over 14 years old are required to refrain from eating meat (or any food made with meat!). While Catholics that are 18 years old or older to under the 60 years old are required to fast (this doesn’t include pregnant or nursing mothers). They can only eat one full meal and two small meals during the day (and no eating in between!).
Where Did Ash Wednesday Come from?
It’s been stated that the very beginning of this tradition has its origins in the Old Testament, when sinners performed public acts of penance. Ash Wednesday was the day on which those who had sinned but wished to be readmitted to the Church would begin their public penance. The ashes are meant to be a reminder of one’s own sinfulness.
It was in the 11th Century when Pope Urban II thought that all Catholics should take part in the practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. It wasn’t until later that it became a custom that the ashes used come from the past Palm Sunday’s burned palms.
Why is Ash Wednesday Important?
The distribution of ashes serves as a reminder of our own mortality, sinfulness and need for penance.
Actually, it’s been stated that Masses on Ash Wednesday have more attendance than Masses on most other Holy Days (not including Christmas). This might be because Ash Wednesday gives us a specific time to notice the things we’ve done wrong or want to do differently and gives us a chance to act upon these realizations during the next 40 days of Lent.
As one source says, the abstinence and fasting serve as “gentle reminders to stay the course.”
How Can You Incorporate Ash Wednesday into Your life?
- Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, but it’s still encouraged for Roman Catholics to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday to reflect on the beginning of Lent.
- Since the ashes are meant to serve as a reminder of our own sinfulness, many Catholics will leave the ashes on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility.
- Families are encouraged to go together to receive ashes at Mass.
- You can encourage your children to think about what penances they will perform throughout the Lent season.
- As a family you can each individually choose your own personal penance and good act that you will perform, as well as a joint sacrifice that you will give up together and a joint good act that you will all perform as a family.
Remember, as one source from the Sacred Page, says, “Lent is NOT about simply saying ‘No" - it's about saying ‘Yes’. If Lent is simply understood in terms of a sour season or as a kind of spiritual ‘ultimate challenge’ (e.g., an attempt at some ridiculously difficult penance for the sake of accomplishment), one would miss the whole point of the season.
Lent is about saying ‘Yes’--yes to loving God with all that we have and all that we are. True, this does involve saying ‘no’ to certain things we may be attached to, but more than anything else, it is a ‘yes’--a yes to refusing to ‘gratify the desires of the flesh’ (cf. Gal 5:15), in order to live a life more devoted to Christ our Lord.”
Be sure to check out the Catholic guide to Ashes and see what you get!