What is Ash Wednesday, and Why Do We Celebrate It?

What is Ash Wednesday, and Why Do We Celebrate It?

Written by Jenny Lis, a Catholic mom of 3 boys, wife, pharmacist, and author of independently published children's books

For Catholics and many other Christians, the close of January and the coming of St. Valentine’s Day means that Lent is quickly approaching. During the season of Lent, the faithful prepare to enter into the Lord’s Passion and glorious resurrection. It’s easy to want to jump ahead to the celebration, but Lent is an important time to focus on renewing our relationship with Jesus Christ. This preparation makes the joy of Easter that much greater, and because Lent is such an important season of penance, prayer, and preparation, it has its own kickoff day—Ash Wednesday.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter and thus the date changes each year with the lunar calendar (this year it falls on February 22, 2023). It is the first day of Lent, and thus marks an important transition in the Liturgical year; the Church moves out of ordinary time and into the penitential season of Lent.

How is Ash Wednesday celebrated?

While Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, many Catholics attend Mass on this day. Receiving ashes on the forehead is a popular and very ancient tradition. Not only are penance and fasting part of ancient Jewish tradition, but the earliest Christians also received ashes as a reminder of our human nature and need for repentance. After all, Genesis 3:19 reminds us "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return."

The ashes used are from the burned palms from Palm Sunday the preceding year. As they are placed on the forehead in the sign of the cross, one of the following phrases is typically used: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel," "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," or "Repent and believe in the Gospel." The distribution of ashes is properly done in the course of a Mass, though like the Eucharist, they can be delivered by a priest or caregiver to homebound or ill individuals. You don’t have to be Catholic or a certain age to receive the ashes.

The Mass readings on Ash Wednesday bring us into the spirit of Lent. The first reading from Joel 2:12-18 reminds us to "return to the Lord, your God." The Gospel comes from Matthew and offers a reflection on giving alms, prayer, and fasting in a quiet manner. It may seem contradictory to receive an outward symbol on one’s forehead immediately after being reminded to fast "in secret." However, the intent of the ashes is to help us grow in humility and make room for God. They remind us we are mortal and fallen—they are meant to be a sign of humility rather than pride. In fact, if you prefer, it is considered acceptable to wipe the ashes from your face after Mass.

Why Do We Celebrate Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is a day of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All of these activities bring us closer to God and open us up to His presence and action in our lives. Prayer is a conversation with the Lord and is critical to building a relationship with Him. Fasting helps us weaken our ties to the physical, temporary world and focus instead on being filled with the Holy Spirit. Almsgiving ensures continued awareness for the poor and encourages action to help those in need in our world. All these together will help us have a fruitful Lent and to be ready to experience the great joy of the resurrection.

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