The First Day of Lent
In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. (In Eastern Rite Catholic churches, Lent begins two days earlier, on Clean Monday.)
Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter. While Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, all Roman Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on this day in order to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.
The Distribution of Ashes
During Mass, the ashes which give Ash Wednesday its name are distributed. The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday; many churches ask their parishioners to return any palms that they took home so that they can be burned.
After the priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water, the faithful come forward to receive them.
The priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" (or a variation on those words).
A Day of Repentance
The distribution of ashes reminds us of our own mortality and calls us to repentance. In the early Church, Ash Wednesday was the day on which those who had sinned, and who wished to be readmitted to the Church, would begin their public penance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness, and many Catholics leave them on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility.
Should Catholics Keep Their Ash Wednesday Ashes on All Day?
The practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a popular devotion for Roman Catholics (and even for certain Protestants). Even though Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, many Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday in order to receive the ashes, which are sprinkled on top of their heads (the practice in Europe) or rubbed on their foreheads in the form of the Cross (the practice in the United States).
As the priest distributes the ashes, he tells each Catholic, "Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel"- a reminder of our mortality and of our need to repent before it is too late.
No Rules, Just Right
While very few (if any) Catholics who attend Mass on Ash Wednesday choose not to receive ashes, no one is required to receive ashes. Similarly, anyone who receives ashes can decide for himself how long he wishes to keep them on. While most Catholics keep them on at least throughout Mass (if they receive them before or during Mass), a person could choose to rub them off immediately.
And while many Catholics keep their Ash Wednesday ashes on until bedtime, there's no requirement that they do so.
Remember, Man, That Thou Art Dust
Wearing one's ashes throughout the day on Ash Wednesday helps us remember why we received them in the first place, and it can be a good way to humble ourselves at the very beginning of Lent, especially if we have to go out in public.
Still, those who feel uncomfortable wearing their ashes outside of church, or those who, because of jobs or other duties, cannot keep them on all day should not worry about removing them.
In the same way, if your ashes naturally fall off, or if you accidentally rub them off, there is no need to be concerned.
A Day of Fasting and Abstinence
Far more important is observing the rules of fasting and abstinence, because Ash Wednesday is a day of strict fasting and abstinence from all meat and food made with meat. For more details, see Can Catholics Eat Meat on Ash Wednesday?, and for ideas for Ash Wednesday meals, check out this extensive collection of Lenten Recipes: Meatless Recipes for Lent and Throughout the Year.
Fasting and Abstinence Are Required
The Church emphasizes the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday by calling us to fast and abstain from meat. Catholics who are over the age of 18 and under the age of 60 are required to fast, which means that they can eat only one complete meal and two smaller ones during the day, with no food in between. Catholics who are over the age of 14 are required to refrain from eating any meat, or any food made with meat, on Ash Wednesday.
Taking Stock of Our Spiritual Life
This fasting and abstinence is not simply a form of penance, however; it is also a call for us to take stock of our spiritual lives. As Lent begins, we should set specific spiritual goals we would like to reach before Easter and decide how we will pursue them—for instance, by going to daily Mass when we can and receiving the Sacrament of Confession more often.
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