Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday woodcut

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent and is the first of the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter.

The celebration of Ash Wednesday was introduced in the seventh century to ensure Lent consisted of 40 days exactly. The forty days refer to the time Jesus spent in the desert after being baptised in the Jordan by John and before beginning his public ministry.

The ashes used in the liturgy on Ash Wednesday are traditionally made from the palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year. Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence. Abstinence from eating meat applies to everyone age 14 and above. Fasting applies to everyone age 18-59.

What happens on Ash Wednesday?

On this first day of Lent, believers receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of penance and to remind them of their mortality. The ashes used on this day are from the burnt palm leaves from Palm Sunday the previous year. When the priest distributes ashes, he says: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” He also may say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Turn away from your sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The person who is receiving ashes need not do or say anything other than move their hair so that the priest can put the ashes on their forehead in the shape of a cross. For more information about the liturgy for this day see HERE.

Who can distribute ashes?Ash Wednesday
While only a priest or deacon may bless the ashes, laypeople may do the placing of the ashes on a person’s head. Even in the solemn rite, lay men or women may assist the priest in distributing the ashes.

Who can receive ashes?
On Ash Wednesday the procession to the altar is quite diverse because anyone, including children and non-Catholics, can receive ashes. Ash Wednesday is not a sacrament like Communion or Confession.

How do you get ashes?
Ashes are blessed and distributed on Ash Wednesday, often during Mass or a prayer service. People walk up to the altar using the same process as Communion.

Should you do anything special before receiving the ashes?
In receiving the ashes, we are entering into the time of Lent, preparing for Easter with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We are embracing Jesus’ journey: the cross of suffering and the promise of Resurrection. The ashes help us connect the spiritual aspect of Christ’s cross and Resurrection with our everyday lives. In addition to the liturgical significance of receiving ashes, we also are called to remember that this is a call to proper relationship between ourselves, God, and each other. Saying a prayer of repentance and remembering your sins is an appropriate way to prepare to receive the ashes. In summary, a person does not have to do any specific outward action; it is an inward journey to Christ.

How long should I leave on the ashes?Palms for Ash Wednesday
The ashes on our foreheads are a visible sign that we are followers of Jesus. The ashes are also a way to tell ourselves and those around us that we are beginning the holy season of Lent-the forty days leading up to Easter. Leaving them on helps you remember this throughout the day, but there are no rules requiring how long you leave them on or when you wash them off.

Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation?
Despite being one of the most-attended holy days of the year by Catholics around the world, it is not an official holy day of obligation.




Ash Wednesday Service from on Vimeo.


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