Adapted from Catholic.com
Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular and important holy days in the liturgical
calendar. Ash Wednesday opens Lent, a season of fasting and prayer. It takes place 46
days before Easter Sunday, and is chiefly observed by Catholics, although many other
Christians observe it too.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The
practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from
which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person’s forehead, he speaks
the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Alternatively, the
priest may speak the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Ashes also symbolize grief, in this case, grief that we have sinned and caused division
from God. Writings from the Second-century Church refer to the wearing of ashes as a
sign of penance.
Priests administer ashes during Mass and all are invited to accept the ashes as a visible
symbol of penance. The ashes are made from blessed palm branches, taken from the
previous year’s palm Sunday Mass.
It is important to remember that Ash Wednesday is a day of penitential prayer and
fasting. Some faithful take the rest of the day off work and remain home. It is generally
inappropriate to dine out, to shop, or to go about in public. Feasting is highly
inappropriate. Small children, the elderly and sick are exempt from this observance.
It is not required that a person wear the ashes for the rest of the day, and they may be
washed off after Mass. However, many people keep the ashes as a reminder until the
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance,
reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday,
through which we attain redemption.