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Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church

Learn more about the history and rituals of Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday 2008 at Saint Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

A woman prays after receiving ashes on her forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday at Saint Louis Cathedral, February 6, 2008, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The First Day of Lent:

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. (In Eastern Rite Catholic churches, Lent begins two days earlier, on Clean Monday.) 

Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter. (See How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Calculated? for more details.) Since Easter falls on a different date each year (see How Is the Date of Easter Calculated?), Ash Wednesday does, too. To find the date of Ash Wednesday in this and future years, see When Is Ash Wednesday?.

While Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, all Roman Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on this day in order to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.

Quick Facts:
 Date: 46 days before Easter Sunday; see When Is Ash Wednesday? for the date this year.
 Type of Feast: Commemoration. (See Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation? for more details.)
 Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 and 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 (full text here)
 Prayers: Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian

The Distribution of Ashes:

During Mass, the ashes which give Ash Wednesday its name are distributed. The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday; many churches ask their parishioners to return any palms that they took home so that they can be burned.

After the priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water, the faithful come forward to receive them. The priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" (or a variation on those words).

A Day of Repentance:

The distribution of ashes reminds us of our own mortality and calls us to repentance. In the early Church, Ash Wednesday was the day on which those who had sinned, and who wished to be readmitted to the Church, would begin their public penance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness, and many Catholics leave them on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility. (See Should Catholics Keep Their Ash Wednesday Ashes on All Day?)

Fasting and Abstinence Are Required:

The Church emphasizes the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday by calling us to fast and abstain from meat. Catholics who are over the age of 18 and under the age of 60 are required to fast, which means that they can eat only one complete meal and two smaller ones during the day, with no food in between. Catholics who are over the age of 14 are required to refrain from eating any meat, or any food made with meat, on Ash Wednesday. (For more details, see What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in the Catholic Church? and Lenten Recipes.)

Taking Stock of Our Spiritual Life:

This fasting and abstinence is not simply a form of penance, however; it is also a call for us to take stock of our spiritual lives. As Lent begins, we should set specific spiritual goals we would like to reach before Easter and decide how we will pursue them—for instance, by going to daily Mass when we can and receiving the Sacrament of Confession more often.

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FAQs on Ash Wednesday:
 When Is Ash Wednesday?
 How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Calculated?
 What Determines the Date of Ash Wednesday?
 Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation?
 Can Catholics Eat Meat on Ash Wednesday?
 
FAQs on Lent:
• When Does Lent Start?
• When Is Lent?
• How Are the 40 Days of Lent Calculated?
• Why Don't Roman Catholics Sing the Alleluia During Lent?
• What Should Replace the Alleluia During Lent?
• Should I Give Up My Diet for Lent?
• Should We Fast on Sundays?
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