Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ash Wednesday gets its name from the ashes that mark the foreheads
of Catholics on this day. Ash Wednesday is the first day of
Lent, a season when people repent, or express sorrow, for their sins,
and ashes are a sign of repentance.
In the Bible, there are many examples of ashes being used to show
repentance for sin. A well known example is found in the Book of
Jonah. When the prophet Jonah told the people of Nineveh to
abandon their wickedness and follow God’s teaching, even the king took his message seriously.
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe and sat
in ashes” (Jonah 3:6).
Another example is seen in Jesus’ warning to the cities that did not repent when the good news
was preached.“Woe to Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you
have been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and
ashes” (Luke 10:13).
The ashes that are used in church on Ash Wednesday are created by burning palms from the
previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes invite parishioners to bring these palms to church for a
There are two messages you might hear when the priest makes the sign of the cross on your
forehead with ashes. One is: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” The
other is: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” Both messages point to the need
for repentance and conversion. You hear the messages and receive the ashes at the beginning of
your Lenten journey to Easter.
Lent will last for six weeks, until the first day of the Triduum, which begins at sunset on Holy
Thursday. Because of its importance in the Christian calendar, one would think that the word
Lent would have some deep spiritual significance. Its meaning, however, is “spring.” But maybe
that meaning is significant after all. Just as spring is bringing new life to the world around us,
Lent offers us a chance at a newer, fresher, better life.
Lenten Fast and Abstinence
During Lent, Christians remember and share the time Jesus spent in the desert, when he fasted
and prayed to prepare for his journey to Easter. In remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice—his suffering
and death on the cross—Christians join with Jesus to prepare for Easter with works of penance,
including fast and abstinence. To fast is to limit the kind and quantity of food and drink. To
abstain is to do without a kind of food or drink.
The Church requires all Catholics 14 years of age and older to abstain from eating meat on Ash
Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. All Catholics from the ages of 18 until 60
are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
To meet the Church’s fast and abstinence requirements for Ash Wednesday and Good
eat only one regular size meal
eat two smaller meals (or less) in addition to the main meal
do not eat or snack between meals
do not eat any meat, soup made with meat, gravy, broth, or any other dish prepared with meat
Out of love of God and others, Catholics are also encouraged to volunteer to make other
sacrifices during Lent:
to give up a favorite food or television program
to perform extra acts of charity and kindness
to read and meditate on the Sunday Gospels
to pray the stations of the cross
to unite their own sacrifices with the sacrifice and suffering of Christ