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What are the rituals and history of Ash Wednesday?

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is the initial day of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. (In eastern rite Catholic churches, Lent begins 2 days earlier, on Clean Monday.)

Ash Wednesday perpetually falls forty six days before Easter. (See how is the Date of Ash Wednesday Determined? for more details.) Since Easter falls on a distinct date every year (see how is the Date of Easter Calculated?), Ash Wednesday does, too. To search out the date of Ash Wednesday during this and future years, see when is Ash Wednesday?

Quick Facts
Date: forty six days before Easter Sunday; see once Is Ash Wednesday? For the date this year.
Type of Feast: Commemoration. Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 and 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of Obligation?
While Ash Wednesday isn’t a holy day of Obligation, all Roman Catholics are inspired to attend Mass on this day and to receive ashes on their foreheads so as to mark the start of the Lenten season.

The Distribution of Ashes
during Mass, the ashes that give Ash Wednesday its name are distributed. The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday; many churches ask their parishioners to return any palms that they took home so that they can be burned.

After the priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water, the faithful step forward to receive them. The priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person’s forehead, says, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (or a variation on those words).

A Day of repentance
the distribution of ashes reminds us of our own mortality and calls U.S.A. to repentance. In the early Church, Ash Wednesday was the day on which people who had sinned, and who wanted to be readmitted to the Church, would begin their public penance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness, and many Catholics leave them on their foreheads all day as an indication of humility. (See should Catholics Keep Their Ash Wednesday Ashes on All Day?)

Fasting and Abstinence Are required
The Church emphasizes the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday by calling us to fast and abstain from meat. Catholics who are over the age of eighteen and below the age of sixty are required to fast, which implies that they’ll eat just one complete meal and two smaller ones throughout the day, with no food in between. Catholics who are over the age of fourteen are needed to refrain from intake any meat, or any food made with meat, on Ash Wednesday.

Taking Stock of Our religious Life
This fast and abstinence isn’t simply a kind of penance, however; it’s also a call for us to take stock of our religious lives. As Lent begins, we should set specific religious goals we’d wish to reach before Easter and choose how we’ll pursue them – as an example, by visiting daily Mass when we can and receiving the religious ceremony of Confession more usually.

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