What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent is the forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. The number forty is significant as it refers to Jesus’ forty days in the desert prior to beginning his ministry of teaching.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and some other Christian denominations receive ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead or sprinkled on top of their head. These ashes are created from the palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday Mass. They symbolize penance, which is appropriate as Lent is a season of penance, and remind us of our own mortality. During the Mass, as the priest or lay minister applies the ashes, he says “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Anyone who attends a Mass can receive ashes, not just practicing Catholics.
When is Ash Wednesday 2023?
This year Ash Wednesday is on February 22, 2023.
The History of Ash Wednesday
Ashes have a place of prominence throughout the Old Testament. They are an outward sign of an internal state of penance or mourning. You can find some scriptural references below:
"Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes." - Job 42: 6
"Daughter of my people, dress in sackcloth, roll in the ashes." - Jeremiah 6:26
"I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes." - Daniel 9:3
"When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh:* “By decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, no cattle or sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast alike must be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; they all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands." - Jonah 3: 6-8
And the practice continued after the coming of Jesus. The practice of public penance was common in the Early Church. After making a confession a person would receive ashes on his head from the priest. The practice of using ashes to mark the beginning of Lent is first recorded during the time of St. Gregory the Great. The Gregorian Sacramentary has the earliest known record of it, then called the “Day of Ashes.” Pope Urban II recommended the practice be used universally throughout the Church in 1091.
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Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation?
Holy Days of Obligation are days Catholics should attend Mass and do their best to avoid unnecessary work. Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics. While it’s not an obligation many Catholics choose to attend Mass and mark the beginning of the Lenten season.
Can you eat meat on Ash Wednesday?
No. Unless you have a medical exemption, Ash Wednesday is a day of Fasting for Catholics.
Make It Personal
Ash Wednesday is a great day to reflect on how you can grow spiritually throughout the Lenten season. Set aside 15 minutes to think about how you can embrace prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Is there a daily prayer, like the rosary or Morning Offering, that you want to start? Can you go to Daily Mass at least once a week? When did you make your last Confession? What habits or indulgences can you resist for forty days? Is there a charity or nonprofit organization close to your heart that you can either donate to or volunteer with? Focus on one or two things you can really commit to and ask God to help you grow powerfully this season. You’ll be amazed at the outcome!
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