What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the liturgical season of Lent. It always falls six and half weeks before Easter, beginning the Lenten season of preparation for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday dates back to the 11th century. Yet, the tradition of receiving ashes has even earlier roots — to the ancient Hebrew custom of clothing oneself in sackcloth and dusting oneself with ashes as a sign of penance. The Bible does not explicitly detail this first day of Lent, but there are many instances of this repentant act in the Old Testament, such as Job 16:15, “I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and have laid my strength in the dust.” and the New Testament, such as Luke 10:13, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”
Across many religious traditions, ashes signify the mortality of our human bodies. Genesis 3:19 tells us, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
In the early Christian Church, public penance for people who had sinned including wearing ashes and sackcloth. As the Church grew and evolved, this practice lessened.
This long tradition — of externally recognizing ourselves as sinners seeking renewal with God — ultimately transformed into what we now know as Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Is Ash Wednesday a Catholic
Holy Day of Obligation in 2023?
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics, yet receiving ashes is a universal practice among Christians to begin their Lenten journeys. Most Catholic parishes offer Ash Wednesday Mass, and in some places, it is possible to receive ashes without attending Mass.
Do I need to be Catholic to receive ashes?
You do not need to be Catholic to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Several other traditions within Christianity also share this act of repentance.
When is Ash Wednesday in 2023?
This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 22, 2023.
Why is Ash Wednesday important?
As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday awakens us to Jesus’ entry into the desert preceding his death. Before Easter, however, we must prepare our hearts for his Resurrection.
We begin our season of preparing our hearts for Easter by recognizing our brokenness and need for conversion, a turning of our hearts to God.
Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday
Where do the ashes come from?
Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter. It symbolizes Christ’s return to Jerusalem after spending 40 days in the desert. In the Catholic tradition, we receive palm leaves, which have been blessed, to hold onto during Mass and bring home. The leftover palms from Palm Sunday are then burned and saved for the next Lenten season. So, this year’s ashes are from the palms of Palm Sunday of 2022.
Where do the ashes go?
It is typical to receive ashes on your forehead in the Sign of the Cross. Similar to taking communion at Mass, you usually process toward the altar to get ashes. The priest will make the Sign of the Cross and say one of two things:
- “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
- “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
What do the ashes symbolize?
The ashes symbolize our mortality. They are a physical reminder that our bodies will decay, but our souls will live on in eternal life.
The cross of ashes means that we are making a commitment – that we are undertaking Lent as a season of prayer and penitence, of dying to ourselves. It also describes our human condition: it says that we are broken and need repair; that we are sinners and need redemption. Most importantly, it tells us that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are to carry our crosses.
Fasting on Ash Wednesday
There are only two obligatory days of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Catholics are also instructed to abstain from meat on each Friday during Lent.
Why do Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday?
Fasting is a sign of repentance and helps us embody our spiritual hunger for Christ, who himself fasted in the desert for forty days preceding his death and Resurrection.
The Catholic Church requires able members from age 18 to 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday. The obligation to abstain from meat applies to those 14 and older.
Fasting allows for one full meal and two smaller meals (that combined do not equal a full meal), with an expectation to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday. Exemptions are available for those with special physical needs.
Ash Wednesday Prayers
How else can I observe Ash Wednesday?
In addition to fasting and attending Mass (or a service where ashes are distributed), you can recognize Ash Wednesday through prayer and almsgiving—the other two pillars of Lenten observance.
In prayer, consider listening to the Daily Gospel or engaging in Spiritual Writing to discern what you’d like to focus on in your relationship with Christ this Lent. If you’re not sure where to start, we guide you through both of these prayer methods, in addition to many others, on our Lent page.
Ash Wednesday Through Art
On Ash Wednesday, we begin the liturgical season of Lent. The ashes used for Ash Wednesday are made from the burned and blessed palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday. These ashes are the product of a ‘death’ of the palm branch, dried out and burned, and turned into the fine powder of ash. We use this sign of death at the beginning of Lent to mark our journey from ‘dying’ to self towards a new life. On Palm Sunday we will be given a new palm branch by the Church… Our faith takes us full circle. In this video we look a little closer to the ashes and the symbolism of the palm branches. As we embark on Ash Wednesday on this annual adventure in our faith, may we embrace each day Lent brings as an opportunity to bring us closer to Christ. Wishing you all a grace-filled Lent.