Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that leads up to Easter in the Catholic Church. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics attend Mass and have ashes marked on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. The ashes symbolize repentance and mourning for sins.
When is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday does not have a fixed date but depends on when Easter falls. It is 46 days before Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday can fall between February 4 and March 10 on the Gregorian calendar.
In 2023, Ash Wednesday will fall on February 22nd.
What do Catholics do on Ash Wednesday?
There are several main practices on Ash Wednesday for Catholics:
- Attending Mass – Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday.
- Fasting – Catholics ages 18-59 fast, limiting themselves to one full meal and two smaller meals.
- Abstaining from meat – Catholics 14 and older abstain from eating meat.
- Repentance – Catholics repent and mourn for their sins.
- Ashes – Catholics receive a cross of ashes on their forehead, a symbol of penance.
All Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday. It is one of two mandatory days of obligation along with every Sunday throughout the year. At Mass, there is a liturgy of the word followed by a rite of distributing ashes where the ashes are marked on parishioners’ foreheads.
Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 fast on Ash Wednesday. Fasting means limiting oneself to one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not equal the full meal. Snacks and beverages are allowed outside the two smaller meals. The Church defines this as a minimal fast and encourages Catholics to fast more intensely by eating less than the two smaller meals if possible.
Abstaining from Meat
All Catholics 14 years and older abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday. Meat includes the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Fish is permitted along with eggs, milk products, condiments and foods made with animal fat.
Ash Wednesday calls Catholics to repentance and mourning for their sins. The ashes symbolize penance and a desire to turn away from sin. Many Catholics attend Reconciliation or Confession during Lent to confess and repent of their sins.
During the Mass, the ashes are blessed and marked on each parishioner’s forehead in the shape of a cross. The priest or deacon marks the ashes while reciting “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes symbolize grief, mortality and penance. Catholics wear the ashes the rest of Ash Wednesday.
Where do the ashes come from?
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made from palm branches blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday. The palms are burned and the ashes saved for Ash Wednesday. Using palms from the prior Palm Sunday connects the beginning and end of Jesus’s ministry – his joyous entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion.
Who is exempt from fasting and abstaining?
Some Catholics may be exempt from fasting and/or abstaining on Ash Wednesday for various reasons:
- Children under 14 do not have to abstain from meat.
- People with health conditions requiring meat can be exempt from abstaining.
- Pregnant or nursing women do not have to fast if it would negatively impact their health or nutrition.
- Anyone with a medical condition where fasting would be considered dangerous is exempt.
- People over 59 are not required to fast but should engage in other acts of penance and charity.
- Those traveling or doing heavy physical labor can be exempt from fasting if needed.
Those who are exempt are still encouraged to participate in fasting and abstaining to the extent they are able.
What are appropriate meals when fasting?
When fasting on Ash Wednesday, the Church requires limiting yourself to one full meal and two smaller meals. Here are some examples of appropriate meals:
- Grilled fish, roasted potatoes, vegetables
- Vegetable soup, salad, bread
- Pasta with marinara sauce, side salad
Smaller Meal Options
- 1/2 sandwich and soup
- Small green salad
- 1/2 bagel with cream cheese
- 5-6 crackers and cheese
- 1/2 peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- 1/2 cup tuna salad and 5-6 crackers
- Small bowl of cereal with milk
- 1/2 cup cottage cheese with fruit
- 1 egg and 1 slice toast
- 5-6 ounces protein shake
The two smaller meals together should not exceed the quantity of the one full meal.
Can you eat snacks on Ash Wednesday while fasting?
Yes, snacks are permitted outside the two smaller meals when fasting on Ash Wednesday. Here are some possible snack options:
- Apple or banana
- Small handful of nuts
- 1 ounce of cheese
- 5 whole grain crackers
- Baby carrots or celery sticks
- Half a protein bar
- 1/2 cup trail mix
Snacks should not be so frequent or large that they diminish appetite for the one full meal.
What about beverages on fast days?
Beverages such as water, juice, milk, tea, coffee, and soda are permitted on Ash Wednesday while fasting. There are no restrictions on quantity. Staying hydrated is important when fasting.
Can you consume alcohol on Ash Wednesday?
Alcohol is permitted in moderation on Ash Wednesday even though it is a day of fasting and abstinence. The Church teaches alcohol should always be used temperately but does not prohibit it during penitential fasting.
Do all Fridays during Lent require abstaining from meat?
Yes, in the Catholic Church all Fridays during the season of Lent are days of abstinence from meat. This requirement applies to all Catholics 14 years and older. The Fridays of Lent are penitential days spent remembering Christ’s sacrifice.
Can you substitute another penance instead of fasting?
Catholics who are exempt from fasting can engage in other forms of penance and sacrifice on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays. Here are some possible substitutes:
- Prayer – spending additional time in prayer.
- Devotional reading – reading Scripture or another spiritual work.
- Acts of charity – volunteering or donating to those in need.
- Self-denial – giving up a favorite thing like candy, television or soft drinks.
Those who are fasting may also wish to supplement it with additional penances and spiritual practices.
Is the meat ban only for warm-blooded animals?
Yes, the Catholic restriction on meat applies only to the flesh and organs of warm-blooded animals like cattle, pigs, sheep, deer, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and mammals in general. Meat from cold-blooded animals like fish, lobsters, crabs, turtles and frogs is permitted.
Are eggs and dairy banned during Lenten abstinence?
Eggs and dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt and butter are permitted on Ash Wednesday and Lenten abstinence days. Only the meat of warm-blooded animals is restricted.
Can you eat soups and sauces made with meat on fast days?
Soups and sauces made from meat are traditionally not allowed on Ash Wednesday or Lenten Fridays since the meat flavors and fats are still present in the dish. Strictly speaking, restriction to abstinence means avoiding any food prepared with meat.
However, some modern Catholic sources consider small bits of meat in broths or sauces to be permissible on technical grounds, though limiting meat as much as possible is in keeping with the spirit of abstinence.
What are the rules if your birthday falls on a fast day?
Catholics who have a birthday that falls on a fast day like Ash Wednesday or Lenten Fridays are not exempt from the requirement to fast and abstain on that day. However, a small celebratory dessert or treat would be permitted in keeping with the moderate fasting rules of one full meal and two smaller meals.
Ash Wednesday and Lenten sacrifices are opportunities to reflect on spiritual growth and service to others more than usual birthday celebrations focused on self.
Do Lenten sacrifices continue on Sundays during Lent?
Sundays during the season of Lent are not counted as part of the 40 fasting days since each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter.” Lenten sacrifices like fasting and abstaining from meat are not required on Sundays although a person may voluntarily choose to continue them.
What are rules for meat on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday?
Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday have specific rules for meat abstinence:
- Holy Thursday – Meat may be eaten since it is part of the Triduum, the three-day celebration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
- Holy Saturday – Meat may not be eaten until the Easter Vigil Mass is celebrated that evening. Fasting is also encouraged during the day.
Can you eat whatever you want after Lent ends?
The Lenten fast and abstinence ends after the celebration of the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday evening. At that point, the strict Lenten penances end and Catholics can resume eating whatever foods they abstained from for Lent if they choose.
However, feasting after Lent should not be excessive but rather mindful celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Following 40 days of discipline with unrestrained indulgence goes against the spirit of temperance and moderation.
Do Eastern Catholic churches have different rules for Lent?
Yes, Eastern Catholic churches which follow different rites have some differing rules for Lenten fasting and abstinence. For example:
- Many Eastern churches abstain from all meat, eggs and dairy rather than only warm-blooded meat.
- Some Eastern churches prohibit oil and fish during fasting periods.
- Fasting may continue through Holy Saturday rather than ceasing after the Easter Vigil.
However, all Catholic churches share the 40-day Lenten period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter.
Ash Wednesday and Lent involve important Catholic traditions of prayer, fasting, abstinence and repentance. Fasting means limiting oneself to one full meal and two smaller meals without snacking between them. Abstaining from meat applies to all Catholics 14 and older on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. Ashes are placed on the forehead as a sign of grief, mourning for sins and doing penance. While Lent involves sacrifice, the purpose is spiritual reflection and growth to become closer to God.