“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Every Catholic is familiar with this phrase. It acts as a reminder of who we are, where we came from, and why we are here. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. For Catholics, it is the beginning of a period of reflection, modesty, and prayer. A number of enduring practices and traditions make Ash Wednesday a particularly symbolic and important date on the liturgical calendar.
Symbolism and Practice
The ashes are a sign of penance and a symbol of the dust from which God made us. The tradition of wearing ashes comes from centuries-old Jewish traditions stemming from occasions of fasting and repentance. The ashes themselves are the burned remains of palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday.
Generally, everyone is welcome to receive ashes during the Mass, even non-practicing Catholics and those who follow other faiths. Because of Ash Wednesday’s focus on renewal and preparation, it can make for a particularly powerful time to invite newcomers to the faith, as well as welcome home those who no longer practice the faith.
As Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, it also begins a period of fasting and abstinence. Barring a serious health condition, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are encouraged to fast on Ash Wednesday by refraining from eating meat, including poultry. Catholics are permitted one meal on Ash Wednesday, and two smaller helpings of food that are not equal to the larger meal of the day.
Fasting continues for each Friday throughout the Lenten season. Many Catholics follow additional fasting practices by refraining from eating completely on Ash Wednesday or only permitting themselves to eat bread or water.
Many Catholics choose to refrain from partaking in an action or eating a particular food for Lent. Kids might choose to avoid eating candy or chocolate starting on Ash Wednesday and lasting throughout the Lenten season. However, it can be far more spiritually fulfilling to add to your life, rather than subtract.
Ash Wednesday and Lent offer an opportunity to rethink your prayer life. Rather than give up chocolate, you can make a vow to pray more during the day and choose to say a full rosary each day. Use your rosary beads and choose to say a full rosary each day.
If you find yourself too busy, spread it out throughout the day, starting by saying one decade of the rosary when you wake up in the morning. By making a commitment to prayer, you can use the season of Lent to grow closer to God.
Changes at Mass
Ash Wednesday brings several notable changes to our regular Sunday masses. Beginning with Ash Wednesday and lasting through Lent, the Alleluia and the Gloria are omitted. These joyous songs return on Easter to proclaim the Resurrection. Many parishes also insert Latin phrases and hymns during Lent. This is also true of the Greek phrasing of the Kyrie. Lent is meant to be a solemn time of reflection and our mass changes to reflect this.
Centuries ago, the day before Ash Wednesday was a mandatory day of penance and reconciliation. Today, many parishes offer additional reconciliation services during Lent. It is common to find community reconciliation services where parishes have several priests available to hear confessions, and a short mass is held.
This is an ideal time to grow closer together, perhaps with friends or family, by attending confession together. It may also be a good time for those with reconciliation anxiety to make it to church. Confession is required at least once a year for every Catholic.
Ash Wednesday is observed 46 days prior to Easter Sunday. The 40-day period of Lent is a reminder of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Sundays are not counted in the 40-day tally. The scheduling of Easter, and, by extension, Lent, is something that is confusing to many people.
Easter is observed on the Sunday that follows the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. Because of this, the date of Easter changes year-to-year, which is why Ash Wednesday is also not observed on a fixed date. Ash Wednesday is not recognized as a Holy Day of Obligation.
However, Ash Wednesday begins our journey to Easter, a season of joy and renewal. To prepare us, Ash Wednesday and Lent serve as a period of reflection, prayer, and sacrifice. The traditions and customs of Ash Wednesday have endured over several centuries. Utilize this time to increase your devotion to prayer and grow your faith. You will get out what you put in, so focus on making Ash Wednesday a day of solemn reflection.