For Catholics around the world, today is an important holy day called Ash Wednesday which is the day that marks the beginning of Lent, the holiest season for Christians. And for Catholics, depending on how strict you are, there are certain rules for fasting on this holy day. It is a time for Christians to fast and pray, recollect what they’ve done with their lives and how to improve their relationship with God.
It is normally observed with fasting in mind, since it is a holy day after all. The question is, what are the rules?
According to the U.S. bishops, these are the following requirements and rules for fasting on Ash Wednesday:
Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday, as well as Good Friday, but this does not mean no food at all.
U.S. bishops define fasting as eating only one full meal the entire day and two smaller portions of food during breakfast and lunch time, that combined wouldn’t equal a full meal, if necessary. There is to be no snacking in between meals.
All Catholics 14 years old and older must completely abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as all the Fridays of Lent.
Eggs, milk products, meat juices, gravies and animal fats are allowed to be consumed, just not the meat itself.
I don’t normally observe strict rules during Lent except for Holy Week. I only observe no meat of Ash Wednesdays and every Friday during Lent. During Holy Week is when I completely try to abstain from eating meat at all.
Why do Catholic put ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday:
The Biblical Response
Over forty passages in the Bible associate ashes with mourning and grief. In Old Testament times people used ashes as a sing of repentance. They would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads or even mingle them with their food and drink. They did this as an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance. Check out Daniel 9:3-6, for an example.
Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time when we stop and assess how we’re doing in our walk with God. Lent helps us identify spiritual areas in which we can grow and sinful areas that we need to avoid. To repent, put simply, means to turn away from sin and turn toward God. We use ashes as an outward expression of our need to begin again.
A Traditional Response
Ashes are a sign of physical death, as in “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We began as dust (a joyless and lifeless existence), and our bodies will return to dust until we are raised up by Christ. By receiving ashes and keeping them on, we publicly proclaim our intent to die to our worldly desires and live even more in Christ’s image, which we focus on during the season of “rebirth” that is Lent (a Latin term for “Spring”).
The Historical Response
For over twelve hundred years on the dies cinerum (day of ashes) faithful followers have approached the altar and received ashes upon their foreheads. These ashes are made from the burnt palm fronds that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water, usually fragranced with incense and blessed using four prayers that are thousands of years old.
The use of ashes for repentance and penance can be traced even further back and is practiced throughout the world. On Ash Wednesday ashes are applied to believers’ foreheads in the shape of the cross.