Ash Wednesday 2023: The start of the Lenten season
Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.Pope Francis
Table of Contents
- What is Ash Wednesday?
- Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation?
- Do I need to be Catholic to receive ashes?
- When is Ash Wednesday in 2023?
- Why is Ash Wednesday important?
- Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday
- Where do the ashes come from?
- Where do the ashes go?
- What do the ashes symbolize?
- Where to get ashes near you
- Fasting on Ash Wednesday
- Why do Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday?
- Age requirement
- Ash Wednesday Prayers
- How else can I observe Ash Wednesday?
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It always falls six and half weeks before Easter, beginning the Lenten season of preparation for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday dates back to the 11th century. Yet, the tradition of receiving ashes has even earlier roots — to the ancient Hebrew custom of clothing oneself in sackcloth and dusting oneself with ashes as a sign of penance.
The Bible does not explicitly detail this first day of Lent, but there are many instances of this repentant act in the Old Testament, such as Job 16:15,
I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin,
and have laid my strength in the dust.
and the New Testament, such as Luke 10:13:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.Luke 10:13
Across many religious traditions, ashes signify the mortality of our human bodies. Genesis 3:19 tells us,
In the early Christian Church, public penance for people who had sinned including wearing ashes and sackcloth. As the Church grew and evolved, this practice lessened.
This long tradition — of externally recognizing ourselves as sinners seeking renewal with God — ultimately transformed into what we now know as Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Is Ash Wednesday a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation?
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics, yet receiving ashes is a universal practice among Christians to begin their Lenten journeys. Most Catholic parishes offer Ash Wednesday Mass, and in some places, it is possible to receive ashes without attending Mass.
Do I need to be Catholic to receive ashes?
You do not need to be Catholic to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Several other traditions within Christianity also share this act of repentance.
SEE MORE: Ashtags: Digital Ashes
When is Ash Wednesday in 2023?
This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 22, 2023. SEE MORE: When is Lent in 2023?
Why is Ash Wednesday important?
As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday awakens us to Jesus’ entry into the desert preceding his death. Before Easter, however, we must prepare our hearts for his Resurrection.
We begin our season of preparing our hearts for Easter by recognizing our brokenness and need for conversion, a turning of our hearts to God.
Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday
Where do the ashes come from?
Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter. It symbolizes Christ’s return to Jerusalem after spending 40 days in the desert. In the Catholic tradition, we receive palm leaves, which have been blessed, to hold onto during Mass and bring home. The leftover palms from Palm Sunday are then burned and saved for the next Lenten season. So, this year’s ashes are from the palms of Palm Sunday of 2022.
Where do the ashes go?
It is typical to receive ashes on your forehead in the Sign of the Cross. Similar to taking communion at Mass, you usually process toward the altar to get ashes. The priest will make the Sign of the Cross and say one of two things:
- “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
- “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
What do the ashes symbolize?
The ashes symbolize our mortality. They are a physical reminder that our bodies will decay, but our souls will live on in eternal life.
Fr. Antony Kadavil further reflects on the symbol of the cross of ashes on our foreheads,
“The cross of ashes means that we are making a commitment – that we are undertaking Lent as a season of prayer and penitence, of dying to ourselves. It also describes our human condition: it says that we are broken and need repair; that we are sinners and need redemption. Most importantly, it tells us that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are to carry our crosses.”Fr. Antony Kadavil
Where to get ashes nearby
Most Catholic churches will expand their liturgical schedule on Ash Wednesday. Masstimes.org is a helpful resource for locating nearby Catholic church services.
Fasting on Ash Wednesday
There are only two obligatory days of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Catholics are also instructed to abstain from meat on each Friday during Lent.
SEE ALSO: What to Give Up for Lent
Why do Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday?
Fasting is a sign of repentance and helps us embody our spiritual hunger for Christ, who himself fasted in the desert for forty days preceding his death and Resurrection.
The Catholic Church requires able members from age 18 to 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday. The obligation to abstain from meat applies to those 14 and older.
Fasting allows for one full meal and two smaller meals (that combined do not equal a full meal), with an expectation to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday. Exemptions are available for those with special physical needs.
In certain situations, bishops can offer a formal dispensation, allowing Catholics to eat meat. This happened in some dioceses during the initial outbreak of Covid-19.
Ash Wednesday Prayers
Ash Wednesday, as the first day of Lent, is a great time to begin a renewed commitment to prayer.
How else can I observe Ash Wednesday?
In addition to fasting and attending Mass (or a service where ashes are distributed), you can recognize Ash Wednesday through prayer and almsgiving—the other two pillars of Lenten observance.
In prayer, consider listening to the Daily Gospel or engaging in Spiritual Writing to discern what you’d like to focus on in your relationship with Christ this Lent. If you’re not sure where to start, we guide you through both of these prayer methods, in addition to many others, on Hallow.