What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent—and a wonderful opportunity to make yourself 100% available to God!
How available to God are you? 50%? 75%? 96.4%? No matter what your answer, Ash Wednesday is the perfect time to decide that you will spend this Lent increasing that number.
On Ash Wednesday, you can get your forehead blessed with ashes at Mass or a prayer service. These ashes are a reminder that we need to repent.
Repentance is a powerful invitation. When John the Baptist first appeared in the desert of Judea, this was his message: “Repent, prepare the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:2). Later, when Jesus began his ministry, he led with this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
But what does it mean for us to repent, here and now, more than two thousand years later? It means the same as it did to the people walking around the dusty pathways in their sandals, trying to inch closer to Jesus as he passed through their town or village. Repent means “to turn back to God.”
We all find ourselves needing to turn back to God many times a day, in ways small and large. It is not a matter of guilt and it is not a shameful thing. It is simply that we are a better version of ourselves when we return to his side!
When is Ash Wednesday 2024?
This year Ash Wednesday is on February 14, 2024.
The History of Ashes on Ash Wednesday
You might be wondering why we get ashes on our foreheads for Ash Wednesday. Throughout history, ashes have been a powerful outward symbol of interior repentance and spiritual awareness. Here are some examples of ashes in the Bible:
- "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)
The Early Christians used ashes to show repentance as well, but not just on Ash Wednesday! After going to confession, it was common for the priest to give the person ashes on their forehead. Catholics have been receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday since the time of St. Gregory the Great. In 1091, Pope Urban II encouraged the entire Church to use ashes on Ash Wednesday.
If you want to get blessed with ashes this Ash Wednesday, be sure to check with your local parish. Most churches celebrate Mass or have a prayer service on Ash Wednesday, and all are welcome to attend and be blessed with ashes.
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Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation?
Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Even though you’re not required to attend Mass, Ash Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity to rearrange your priorities and feed your soul before one of the most important seasons of the entire year!
Can you eat meat on Ash Wednesday?
No. Unless you have a medical exemption, Ash Wednesday is a day of Abstinence for Catholics.
Avoiding meat can be difficult, but it’s a powerful way to get disciplined about your priorities. When you make little sacrifices a part of your everyday spirituality, amazing things happen!
For example, suppose you have a craving for a Coke, but you have a glass of water instead. It is the smallest thing. Nobody notices. And yet, by this simple action you strengthen your willpower and become an even better-version-of-yourself.
Or, say your soup tastes a little dull. You could add salt and pepper, but you don’t. It’s a little thing. It’s nothing. But by saying no to yourself in small ways, it makes you even freer to say yes to the things that truly matter.
If you want to grow in strength this Lent, there’s one simple thing you can do: Try to never leave a meal table without practicing some form of sacrifice. It is these tiny acts that will strengthen your will for the great moments of decision that are a part of each of our lives!
What are the fasting rules for Ash Wednesday?
The Church requires all Catholics from ages 14-59 to fast on Ash Wednesday. As long as you are in good health, this means that you should only eat one full meal, plus two smaller meals that do not equal a full meal. Ash Wednesday is also a day where Catholics avoid eating meat.
There is great wisdom in the Christian practice of fasting—even though its benefits are largely forgotten! Fasting is a spiritual exercise, and as such is primarily an action of the inner life. Authentic fasting draws us nearer to God and opens our hearts to receive his many gifts.
Fasting is also a sharp reminder that there are more important things in life than food. Authentic Christian fasting helps to release us from our attachments to the things of this world. It is often these worldly attachments that prevent us from becoming the-best-version-of-ourselves. Fasting also serves as a reminder that everything in this world is passing and thus encourages us to consider life beyond death.
Go without food for several hours and you quickly realize how truly weak, fragile, and dependent we are. This knowledge of self strips away arrogance and fosters a loving acknowledgment of our utter dependence on God. Ash Wednesday is a powerful day to rediscover the power of fasting in your life!
Make It Personal
Ash Wednesday is the perfect time to decide if you want to have the kind of Lent that’s easy to forget…or the kind that changes your life. Do you want a renewed commitment to prayer? More discipline in a specific area of your life? A stronger marriage? More peace? This Ash Wednesday, set aside 15 minutes to set your intentions for the season of Lent!
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