Ash Wednesday


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).

Rules for Fasting and Abstinence

Canon Law of the Catholic Church concerning fasting and abstinence for Latin Rite Catholics states:

Can. 1249  All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law;  in order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence according to the norm of the following canons.

Can. 1250  All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.

[Although no particular penance is prescribed by the Church (ref. Can. 1250), the old discipline of abstinence of all Fridays and of fasting on all weekdays of Lent may be maintained.  If not, it must be replaced by some other form of penance.]

Can. 1251  Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion of the Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

[Whenever a solemnity (first class feast) falls on a Friday, abstinence is dispensed.]

Can. 1252  All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year.  Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.

Can. 1253  It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of the fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

[In the United States and many other countries the days of abstinence are Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent.  On other Fridays, one is allowed to commute abstinence into another form of penance (e.g., the Way of the Cross).]