Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving leading up to Easter Sunday. On this day, Christians around the world attend church services where ashes are marked on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. This reminds them of their mortality and need for repentance. The ashes used are typically made by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service.
As one of the most solemn days on the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday has certain guidelines that should be followed by observers. Here are some of the main do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.
Do’s on Ash Wednesday
Attend an Ash Wednesday Service
Attending a church service is the hallmark Ash Wednesday practice. Try to start the day by going to Mass or a similar service where the imposition of ashes will occur. The ashes symbolize repentance and mortality. As the priest applies the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes, you will hear the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is the central act of worship on this day.
Fast and Abstain from Meat
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics ages 18-59. This means only having one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not equal a full meal. No snacking between meals! Catholics also abstain from eating meat on these days. So stick to vegetarian or seafood dishes. The fasting reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert and helps free us from earthly concerns to focus on God.
Give to Charity and Volunteer
Almsgiving is an important part of the Lenten season. Donate money and/or your time to organizations that help the poor and needy. This could include serving at a soup kitchen, donating canned goods to a food drive, or volunteering at a homeless shelter. By giving to others, we grow in compassion and generosity.
Pray and Read Scripture
Spend extra time praying on Ash Wednesday. Thank God for the gift of salvation, ask for forgiveness and divine mercy, and pray for those in need. Reading Scripture passages related to repentance, such as Psalm 51 or Isaiah 58:1-12, can help set the tone for the start of the Lenten season.
Don’ts on Ash Wednesday
Don’t Eat Meat
Abstaining from meat and meat products on Ash Wednesday (and Fridays during Lent) is an obligatory form of fasting for Catholics ages 18-59. Be sure to avoid beef, chicken, pork, and even soups or gravies made from meat. Going vegetarian for a day can be a powerful sacrifice. Those with medical or dietary needs are exempt from this practice.
Don’t Have Lavish Meals
Since Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting, avoid eating large, lavish meals with multiple courses. Stick to simple, modest dishes. Breakfast could be toast or cereal, lunch a PB&J sandwich, and dinner rice and vegetables. Don’t go out to fancy restaurants – save that for after Lent! Keeping meals simple and small can help make the day feel more sacrificial.
Don’t Attend Festive Events
Ash Wednesday has a somber, penitential mood. Avoid attending or hosting lively parties or celebrations on this day. It’s better to reserve festive social gatherings for other days outside of Lent. Using Ash Wednesday as a day of quiet reflection and self-denial is most fitting.
Don’t Wear Makeup or Get Your Hair Done
In keeping with the solemn and humble spirit of the day, consider going without makeup, nail polish, or getting your hair colored or styled. These acts of external “prettifying” shift the focus away from inner repentance. Keep your external appearance simple and modest.
Don’t Play Loud Music
Skip listening to upbeat or loud music on Ash Wednesday. Instead, opt for quiet, reflective tunes or simply embrace the silence. Calming your senses can help direct your heart and mind toward spiritual matters rather than earthly distractions.
Summary of Ash Wednesday Dos and Don’ts
- Attend church service & get ashes imposed
- Fast & abstain from meat
- Give to charity & volunteer
- Pray & read Scripture
- Eat meat
- Have large, lavish meals
- Attend festive celebrations
- Wear makeup or get hair done
- Play loud music
Following these Ash Wednesday guidelines will mark the beginning of Lent in a meaningful, thoughtful way. The sacrifices help us repent, grow closer to God, and strip away earthly distractions and indulgences. This intentional day sets our hearts in the right frame as we embark on the Lenten journey toward Easter.
What are your personal Ash Wednesday traditions? Do you have any creative practices for making it a thought-provoking day? Share your ideas and experiences below!
History of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday has been observed by Christians for over a thousand years, with its origins in ancient rites of repentance. Here is a brief overview of how this solemn day developed:
– Circa 300-600 AD: Christians would spend 40 days in penance before Easter, mirroring Christ’s time in the desert. This became known as Lent.
– Circa 600s AD: Pope Gregory I officially designated Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent.
– Circa 800-900s AD: The Catholic Church started the custom of using ashes made from burned palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday.
– 1091 AD: Pope Urban II required fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday.
– 1700s AD: Protestant denominations including Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists also began observing Ash Wednesday.
– 1969: The Catholic Church revised fasting guidelines to allow one full meal plus two smaller meals that don’t equal a full meal.
Today, Ash Wednesday services take place in Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican churches worldwide. The day focuses believers on repentance and their need for God’s mercy as they begin the period of Lent leading up to Easter.
Significance of Ashes
Wearing ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead is the hallmark act of worship on Ash Wednesday. But where does this tradition come from, and what is its spiritual significance?
In the Old Testament, wearing ashes was a sign of mourning, grief, and repentance. Dusting oneself with ashes reflected sorrow or regret for sins, while removing ashes symbolized joy and celebration.
For example, in the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. Job repented “in dust and ashes” after God spoke to him. Daniel pleaded for God to forgive Israel’s sins and sprinkled himself with ashes.
Ashes remind believers of their mortality – “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Like dust, our earthly lives and human forms will decay and death eventually comes to all. This spurs us to repent while we still have time.
The ash cross symbolizes commitment – marking oneself visibly inspires introspection and resolve to follow Jesus faithfully. It also symbolizes the spiritual cleansing we receive through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Overall, wearing ashes is an ancient, powerful gesture of humility, mourning our sins, and remembering our mortality. The cross shape reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection that follows after the penitence of Lent.
Ash Wednesday Traditions Around the World
While Ash Wednesday is observed by Western churches worldwide, different cultures have added their own spin to this holy day. Here are some interesting Ash Wednesday traditions from around the globe:
In Mexico, the day before Ash Wednesday is called “Mardi Gras” or Fat Tuesday. Large celebrations, feasts and parties take place across the country on this day before Lent begins. Pancakes are traditionally eaten.
Italians enjoy elaborate feasts on Fat Tuesday, eating rich foods like lasagne before the fasting of Lent. In Venice, there are huge carnival parties and parades. Ash Wednesday marks a dramatic switch to modest meals of fish and vegetables.
It’s a tradition to not eat or serve potatoes on Ash Wednesday in Ireland since they are considered a luxury. Irish Catholics will tuck into oatmeal, wheat breads, and fish instead. Many shamrocks are worn.
Christians in India often mark the beginning of Lent by lighting lamps or candles in church on Ash Wednesday. Ashes are sprinkled over the flames as a symbol of repentance. Special Lenten hymns called “Dolaks” are sung after receiving ashes.
After attending Mass and getting their ashes, Filipino Catholics bring home palm leaves which were blessed the previous Palm Sunday. These are formed into crosses and placed around the house or along the streets as a symbol of protection.
In Costa Rica, the week before Ash Wednesday is called Romería and features carnivals, parades, and parties centered around bullfighting. Lenten fasting starts at midnight between Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.
Common Ash Wednesday Questions
Do you have to go to church to get ashes?
No, attending a church service is not required to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. However, an Ash Wednesday service provides a worship context for contemplating the meaning behind this religious practice. If unable to attend church, ask your pastor or lay minister for ashes.
What do the ashes represent?
The ashes symbolize several spiritual concepts: Death and sin – Ashes remind us of human mortality and regret for sins. Repentance – Covering oneself in ashes was historically an act of repentance. Commitment – The ash cross demonstrates one’s commitment to the Lenten journey. Cleansing – The shape of a cross reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice that cleanses our sins.
Where do the ashes come from?
Traditionally, ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. Some modern churches burn incense or the previous Easter’s palms instead. The ashes are then blessed by a priest before being used in the Ash Wednesday service.
Why do Catholics fast and abstain from meat?
Fasting and abstaining from meat are acts of penance and self-denial. By sacrificing bodily comforts, we turn our focus to spiritual matters and identify with Christ’s suffering. Fasting also hearkens back to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his ministry.
Do you wear the ashes all day?
There are differing views on this. Some wipe the ashes off after Mass, seeing it as a gesture only needed in worship. Others wear them in public all day as a witness of faith. There are no universal rules – choose whichever approach brings more spiritual benefit to you.
Ash Wednesday solemnly marks the start of Lent. Having ashes imposed on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross is the central act of this holy day. This symbolizes penitence for sins and reminds believers of mortality.
Catholics also fast and refrain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday as acts of sacrifice and self-denial. The day should be spent focusing on repentance, prayer, Scripture reading and charity. Avoiding festivities and vanities can help create an appropriate solemn mood.
While customs may vary, Ash Wednesday practices around the world all aim to turn Christians’ hearts toward making atonement with God during the period of Lent leading up to the joy of Easter Sunday.