Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It is always 46 days before Easter Sunday, which means it’s on a different day every year, but always on Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, but all Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.
During Mass, blessed ashes are distributed. The ashes are made by burning the palms from Palm Sunday the previous years. In Poland, the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head, so if you are wearing a hat, be sure to remove it before receiving ashes.
The Blessing and Distribution of Ashes
After the homily, the priest, standing with hands joined, says:
Dear brethren (brothers and sisters),
let us humbly ask God our Father
that he be pleased to bless with the abundance of his grace
these ashes, which we will put on our heads in penitence.
O God, who are moved by acts of humility and respond with forgiveness to works of penance, lend your merciful ear to our prayers and in your kindness pour out the grace of your † blessing on your servants who are marked with these ashes, that, as they follow the Lenten observances, they may be worthy to come with minds made pure to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of your Son. Through Christ our Lord.
O God, who desire not the death of sinners, but their conversion, mercifully hear our prayers and in your kindness be pleased to bless † these ashes, which we intend to receive upon our heads, that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may, through a steadfast observance of Lent, gain pardon for sins and newness of life after the likeness of your Risen Son. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
The priest then sprinkles the ashes with holy water, in silence. Then the priest places ashes on the heads of all those who come forward, saying to each one:
Repent and believe in the Gospel.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
The Symbolism of the Ashes
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance for our sins (“Repent and believe in the Gospel”). The distribution of the ashes reminds us of our mortality (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). Usually, we leave the ashes on our heads all day as a sign of our humility before God.
A Day of Fasting and Abstinence
The penitential nature of Ash Wednesday is emphasized by fasting and abstinence from meat. This means that Catholics over the age of 18 and under the age of 60 can only eat one complete meal and two smaller ones during the day. Usually, the ‘two smaller’ meals – combined – should be no larger than the ‘complete’ meal. A ‘complete’ meal does not necessarily mean a large meal or a heavily indulgent one. Some people, in fact, opt to fast on bread and water for all three meals. The choice is up to the individual, as long as the normal precept of one complete meal and two smaller collations or ‘snacks’ is observed. We do not eat between meals on a day of fasting. Catholics over the age of 14 are required to refrain from eating any meat or food made with meat on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday, a Day to Take Stock of our Spiritual Lives
On Ash Wednesday, we should fast and abstain from eating meat; we should go to Mass and receive ashes. But we should also go to confession if we have not been to confession in a long time or have been putting it off. Ash Wednesday is also a day to set goals for ourselves in our spiritual lives, with the intention of reaching those goals before Easter. For example, the six weeks of Lent are a good time to commit to going to daily Mass or going to Mass more often – one extra day per week, for example. Or we might pledge ourselves to weekly confession or devote one hour per week to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (or ten minutes per day, if we pass near a church in our daily comings and goings).
Giving Something Up for Lent
It is customary to make a commitment to making a sacrifice during Lent. This is something that each person should carefully consider, especially if as adults we’re still “giving up sweets” as we may have done when we were children, but which is not so important to us now.
If you have a regular confessor who knows you well, he can help you decide what would be a good sacrifice for Lent. Here are a few hints for thinking of your own ideas for a sacrifice:
† When you examine your conscience prior to confession, do you find that you confess the same thing time after time? If something is a habitual sin and you don’t seem to be able to make any progress, you can try to be more aware of it on a daily basis during Lent. For example, if gossip is a problem, you can make a commitment to God to try to avoid gossip during Lent. A priest or just a little prayerful, creative thinking can help you find something to put in the place of the bad habit – for example, making an effort to compliment others and affirm their good points in speech, instead of gossiping about their faults.
† When you look back over your day or your week, if you often feel that you don’t have enough time or that you waste time (or if loved ones complain that you don’t spend enough time with them), identify where your time goes – the computer, TV, texting, video games are often the culprit – and try to give up that thing, or limit the amount of time you spend on it. If you decide to give up something that wastes your time, it’s very helpful to replace it with something positive: visiting friends or lonely relatives instead of spending time on Facebook, for example; playing with your children or taking exercise instead of playing games on the computer; reading a good spiritual book or the day’s Mass readings instead of surfing the net; spending time in prayer – alone, before the Blessed Sacrament, or praying a family rosary – instead of watching television. Very often people who eliminate a time-wasting habit during Lent and replace it with something better find that they don’t want to return to wasting time after Lent, because their lives and relationships have improved so much.
† Traditionally, of course, during Lent people often give up something they love to eat, but we should not think of Lent as being some kind of diet. If we are giving up sweets or other foods so we can fit into a bikini or be more attractive to the opposite sex, we’ve missed the point. Fasting from food is a bodily discipline that helps us discipline ourselves in other areas of our lives, as well as showing respect for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit by tempering unhealthy over-indulgence. For some people, this may mean not eating between meals, not eating after 7PM or not eating unhealthy foods. For others, it means giving up alcohol, nicotine, sugar or caffeine. Especially where there is a chemical dependence is involved, breaking the habit can be very difficult. In these cases, the grace of the penitential period – and the promise we have made to God – helps us to stick to our commitment even when we have physical cravings or painful withdrawal symptoms. Many people find that a Lenten fast from something like smoking turns into life-long freedom. It is certainly worth a try.
Dr. Taylor Marshall has compiled a list of 40 ideas for Lent. Some of the ideas involve making a sacrifice; others involve making a positive step in your faith life, rather than giving up something. Dr Marshall suggests choosing a few from the list – whatever suits your lifestyle or wherever God directs you – rather than trying to do all 40. (Subscribing to Dr Marshall’s podcasts is not on the list, but is a good idea, too.)
For Lent, Our Sunday Visitor has prepared an interactive guide to Lent that you can access online. Click on any part of the calendar and you can read about Ash Wednesday and find reflections for each week in Lent. The OSV Lenten calendar is also downloadable to print out in a colorful and handy PDF document. Our Sunday Visitor also has an online and PDF resource for a simple explanation of the Lenten Season and how to understand and observe it.
Catholic Retreat Net has compiled seven resources for daily reflections during Lent, some of which can even be sent to your computer inbox. Praying in Lent could not be easier than that. The offerings range from resources for praying the traditional Liturgy of the Hours to reading the Gospel every day to a Lenten app designed by students for students. Check it out.
The Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian
Saint Ephrem the Syrian lived in the 4th century. He wrote more than four hundred hymns, homilies, biblical commentaries and arguments against heresies. He is venerated as a saint among Syrian Christians. Saint Ephrem is probably most famous for a prayer that Eastern Christians pray during Lent and on any day of fasting. The prayer is said three times a day – morning (on waking), noon, and night (before retiring). It provides a good starting-point for Lenten penitence and self-examination:
O Lord and Master of my life, grant not unto me a spirit of idleness, of discouragement, of lust for power, and of vain speaking.
But bestow upon me, Thy servant, the spirit of chastity, of meekness, of patience, and of love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my own transgressions, and judge not my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.