The Receiving of Ashes

Ash Wednesday begins the holy season of Lent, which is structured to spiritually prepare us to walk with the Lord through his passion and celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

This day begins the 40 days in which the Church calls the faithful to conversion and to truly prepare to live the mysteries of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Per the instructions of the Roman Missal, ashes are typically supposed to be made from last year’s Palm Sunday palm branches. These branches are then burned down into a fine powder and, in the United States, are mixed with holy water or chrism oil to create a light paste. At Mass the ashes are blessed and placed on the forehead of the faithful, making the sign of the cross while the priest (or deacon) says: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

The person receiving the ashes then goes back to his or her pew in silence, meditating on the words that were spoken.

The act of putting on ashes, a sign of humility, symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation and therefore receiving ashes is not obligatory. However, it is always recommended to attend Mass.

On the other hand, fasting and abstinence are mandatory — as on Good Friday — for those 18–59 years of age. Outside of those limits it is optional. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains that “fasting on these days means we can have only one full, meatless meal. Some food can be taken at the other regular mealtimes if necessary but combined they should be less than a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time, but no solid food should be consumed between meals.”

Abstinence from eating meat is mandatory from the age of 14. All Fridays of Lent are also required days of abstinence.

Corporal Works of Mercy
Mary’s Way of the Cross