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Significance of Ash Wednesday and rituals

When is Ash Wednesday in 2018? When does Lent begin this year? Do I have to go to Church on Ash Wednesday? Can I eat meat on Ash Wednesday? This article give informative answers to all your questions.

Ash Wednesday marks the commencement of the Lenten period. Lent is a forty day period of fasting and penance observed by Catholics and a few other denominations of the Christian faith. In official parlance, it is called the 'Day of Ashes' getting the name from the rite of applying ashes on the forehead, in the sign of a cross.

Ash Wednesday always falls on a Wednesday, exactly forty days (excluding Sundays) preceding Easter Sunday. There is no mention of either Ash Wednesday or Lent, in the Holy Bible. They were included as official rites by the Roman Catholic Church in the sixth century.

Significance of Ashes in the Old Testament

There is mention of ashes in the Old Testament and it is described to have been to signify two things –

  • Ash was applied as a symbol of mortality and humbleness
  • Ash was applied as a sign of mourning and of penitence and for atonement of sins

Ash Wednesday in today's time

Special Holy Mass is held on Ash Wednesday to indicate the commencement of the penitential season of Lent. This year Ash Wednesday falls on 14 February and coincides with Valentine's Day. According to the Catholic tradition, there are certain rules and rituals that need to be practised on Ash Wednesday.

  • You should not eat meat on Ash Wednesday, as it marks the beginning of Lent
  • Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting, abstinence and prayer
  • Though it is not a day of obligation, it is customary to attend Mass
  • During Mass ash is applied to the forehead, in the sign of a cross, as to remind us of our mortality, with the words 'Dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return'
  • The 'cross' applied using ash on the forehead emulates the spiritual seal put on a new-born during baptism, when the child is anointed and made a Christian. Similarly, the ash on the forehead signifies that the faithful are with Christ
  • Starting from Ash Wednesday, those over the age of 14 must abstain from eating meat on all Fridays, during the forty days period of Lent

Rules of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Lent

If one decides to fast on Ash Wednesday and through the Lenten period then it must be done according to Christ's preaching in the Bible, where He spoke of fasting without making a great show of it.

"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." - Mathew 6: 16-18 (The Holy Bible)

Lent is also a time for Christians to atone for their wicked and sinful ways. Though this is expected of them at all times, Lent provides a special reason to repent and purify our souls and become Christians, in every way and not just in name.

In the Catholic faith, this is a day of fasting and penitential prayer. Dining out, partying or indulging in other forms of entertainment, on Ash Wednesday is regarded as highly inappropriate, especially after receiving the ashes. The elderly, the infirm and young children are exempted by the Church to follow this practice.

The ashes can be washed off after Holy Mass and it is not obligatory to wear it for the rest of the day. The distribution of ashes in street corners is frowned upon by the Catholic Church, even though it is practised by pastors belonging to other Christian denominations. Catholics must get the ashes as part of Mass. However, taking the ashes home to other members of the family or faithful is allowed.

What are the ashes used on Ash Wednesday

Ashes for the Ash Wednesday celebration are nothing but ashes from burnt palms. Priests burn blessed palms from Palm Sunday of the preceding year and consecrate them with Holy Water.

Significance of Ash Wednesday

As mentioned Ash Wednesday ushers the start of the Lenten period. A forty day period before Good Friday, which was when Christ was crucified. Christ spent the forty days before His crucifixion in a desert, fasting and in prayer. Catholics emulate the same and spend the forty days of Lent in prayer and fasting. They use this period as a time for contrition and penance.

The Lenten season serves as a reminder that the Almighty is kind and compassionate, especially to those who seek Him and ask for forgiveness for their iniquities. The Lord's mercy is of utmost significance, during this period, and the Church reminds us to seek that mercy through Lent, with prayer, reflection and repentance.

Is it obligatory to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is not a day of obligation, so attending Mass on this day is not compulsory.

Is Ash Wednesday a day of fasting?

Yes, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting as it marks the beginning of Lent.

Lenten calendar 2018

  • Ash Wednesday: 14/02/2018
  • Palm Sunday: 25/03/2018
  • Maundy Thursday: 29/03/2018
  • Good Friday: 30/03/2018
  • Holy Saturday: 31/03/2018
  • Easter Sunday: 01/04/2014

Ash Wednesday in other years

  • In 2017 Ash Wednesday was on 01/03/2017
  • In 2019 Ash Wednesday will be on 06/03/2019
  • In 2020 Ash Wednesday will be on 26/02/2020


Ash Wednesday is the commencement of a solemn period to change ourselves and become more holy. It rings in the beginning of spiritual discipline in the devout. It is also the first day of Lent. It is a period which calls for sacrifice – of abstemiousness, prayer and fasting. It is a time for reflection and for denouncing our evil activities, ways and habits. It is a time where we do not just give ourselves up to the Lord, but also make sacrifices so we can give to those in need. It is a time to change our souls and become better Christians.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

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