Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 days of the Lenten Season. The number 40 has always had special significance particularly in Sacred Scripture. St. Jerome observes that this number denotes punishment and affliction. After all, there were 40 days and nights of the Flood, 40 years of exile in the desert, 40 days of scoffing by Goliath before David rose up, and 40 days in which both Moses and Elias had to fast before receiving the commandments of God and setting eyes on Mount Horeb, respectively. So too, we read in the Gospel account of the First Sunday of Lent, that Christ fasted 40 days and nights as a preparation for His public ministry in Galilee. The Church, therefore, following the example of Her Divine Founder, bids the faithful to fast and make reparation for their sins. Traditionally, this has been done in three ways, namely, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The ancient discipline of fasting consists of eating only one full meal (at which meat can be eaten) and two smaller meals (colations) which do not equal the full meal. When there is full abstinence along with fasting, then no meat is to be eaten as is the case on Fridays of Lent according to the traditional discipline. The other days of Lent, except Sunday, are considered days of fasting, however, with partial abstinence i.e. one full meal with meat, two lesser meals with no meat. This discipline is no longer enforced by Church law and has been reduced to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as the only days of fasting and complete abstinence. The Fridays during Lent are days of complete abstinence. Nevertheless, the ancient practice is laudable and recommended especially for those who are physically capable of doing so. We recall the words of Benedict XIV, of blessed memory, who wrote in his encyclical concerning the Lenten fast Non ambigimus:
The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe. (our emphasis)
In the ancient Roman Rite, the faithful on Ash Wednesday approach the Communion rail before Holy Mass to receive ashes (from the blessed palms/foliage of the previous year) on their foreheads in the form of a cross. The priest as he administers the ashes says, “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return” (Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris). The custom of distributing the ashes to the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. Although it is not a holy day of obligation, receiving the ashes is a worthy manner of beginning the season which liturgically-speaking begins on the First Sunday of Lent. The words of the Introit of Ash Wednesday are a wonderful reminder of what God does during this season of Lent: “Thou hast mercy upon all, O Lord, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made, overlooking the sins of men for the sake of repentance, and sparing them: because Thou art the Lord our God” (our emphasis).