3 Basic Facts about Ash Wednesday

What is the significance of Ash Wednesday? What are we supposed to do on Ash Wednesday? And what we are supposed to eat? Do Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday going to Mass?

These are some of the most frequently asked questions about the first day of Lent. Here are 3 basic facts about Ash Wednesday that might help us find the answers.

1. A short history of Ash Wednesday

The first written evidence of the use of ashes among penitent believers dates back to the works of early Christian authors Tertullian and Eusebius (I century AD.). In their works, they both mention the early Christian practice of public penance covering their selves with sackcloth and ashes. The ritual has a pagan origin but was adopted by early Christians and finally accepted into the beliefs of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. It was Pope Gregory (601 AD.) who instituted the tradition of marking faithful’s forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross.

2. What’s the significance of Ash Wednesday

The ashes remind the faithful of humans’ mortality, sinfulness and, at the same time, their need to repent. The priest distributing the ashes used to pronounce a formula based on Genesis verses "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.". Later, the biblical formula was translated as “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Usually, the ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations. There is no rule about how long the ashes should be worn, but many people wear them throughout the day as a public expression of their faith. For Catholics, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.

3. What are we expected to do on Ash Wednesday

Although Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, all Roman Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on this day in order to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. Moreover, we are expected to observe some simple rules:
- We cannot eat meat on Ash Wednesday as on every Lenten Friday.
- Catholic adults are also mandated to fast on Ash Wednesday. That means that we can consume only one full meal, plus two smaller meals.
- We can get ashes on our forehead as a reminder of our mortality.

Curious fact about Ash Wednesday

In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day too. Since quitting smoking can be very hard, it has been tied in with giving up vices and pleasure for Lent.