Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2023
Author: Hannah DeVivo

Peace be with you! 

Lent begins next week with Ash Wednesday, on February 22nd.

Ash Wednesday

What is Ash Wednesday? It is the first of forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays). Lent is the time in the Liturgical Calendar denoted with the color purple. It is a season of penitence in which we are called to repent and turn our hearts and lives closer to God. During these days we observe the three pillars: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are called to attend Mass. During the service, typically after communion, the congregation comes to the front of the church again to receive ashes on their heads from the priest. The ashes, which come from the burned palm branches from Palm Sunday, remind us of Jesus' sacrifice for our salvation. The priest will either sprinkle the ashes on the heads of the parishioners or make a sign of the cross with his thumb on their foreheads. He accompanies this with either of these sayings: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “You are dust and to dust you shall return”.

The use of ashes appears often throughout the Bible. In times of mourning and repentance, men and women would put ashes on their heads and sackcloth on their bodies. "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes" -Daniel 9:3. The ashes reiterate that this world is temporary, and we have an eternal life awaiting us. The ashes also signify to us that we are entering into a more solemn time. We are called to remember the events leading up to Jesus’ death, culminating with His passion and crucifixion.

Two common questions that come up for Ash Wednesday are “Is it a holy day of obligation?” and “Is it a day of fasting?” The answer to the first question is no; Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. That being said, it is very important and worthwhile to attend Mass on that day. Doing something outwardly is very beneficial in making an inward change. Making a plan, getting dressed, and going to church on Ash Wednesday reiterates that this is the start of a new season. While in the church, you will see that the colors have changed from green to purple. There is a solemnity in the air, and in the composure of our fellow Christians. Being at church and getting the ashes is a time to connect with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and experience this new season alongside them. Though you are not required to attend Mass or receive ashes, I highly recommend doing so.

Fasting During Lent

“Is Ash Wednesday a day of fasting?” Yes. For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.

A summary of current practice:

  • On Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays of Lent: Everyone aged 14 and up must abstain from consuming meat.
  • On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: Everyone aged 18 to 59 must fast, unless exempt, due to usually a medical reason.

Being pregnant with or breastfeeding a child is one common medical exemption from fasting.

Why do we fast during Lent? Fasting is a common practice that has been around for centuries. It helps us to align our hearts more closely with the heart of Jesus. When fasting, we deny our bodily desires and focus on the spiritual life within us. I have found that it deepens the intimate relationship we have with God. It is something between just us and Him; nobody around us should know that we are fasting. Jesus said, “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 others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” -Matthew 6:16.

Jesus came to earth as fully God and fully man. He sacrificed His own flesh for the forgiveness of our sins. He became the true and perfect sacrifice so that after Him, there need be no other. Every Friday in Lent and on the days that we fast, we abstain from meat to honor the flesh of Jesus. Meat is also considered a luxurious food, and by not partaking in it we are adding another form of sacrifice in which we can reflect on Jesus' Passion and unite our suffering with His. Up until 1966, Catholics abstained from meat every Friday throughout the entire year. Some Catholics still observe this practice.

A Prayer for You

I would be honored to pray for you in a special way during this season of Lent. Let us bow our heads together and lift up our hearts to God: 

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You gave your only Son so that we could know your love here on earth, and live in the fullness of that love with You in Heaven forever. Please help us to accept that we are your precious and beloved children. You made each of us to be unique and share a special gift with this world. We give our hearts and lives over to Your divine will. During this season of Lent, please use as Your instruments and deepen our relationship with You. We humbly ask for Your peace which surpasses all understanding. 

We ask these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Before You Go

Do you attend Mass on Ash Wednesday?

What are your personal experiences with fasting?

Did you learn anything new in this article?

I would LOVE to hear from you. Send me an email to Be sure to follow and subscribe to the links below for more tips and information.