Ash Wednesday: 10 facts you might not know

As we prepare for the start of Lent, test your Ash Wednesday knowledge.

Antoine Mekary | Aleteia

Ash Wednesday marks the official start of Lent: a 40-day period that prepares us for the celebration of Easter. For all of you good at math you’d be right in thinking that the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is actually longer than those 40 days, but if you read on you’ll find out why, as well as pick up a few more facts that will make you an Ash Wednesday aficionado.

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1. 40 days or more …

Sundays are excluded from this time of penitence, so the Lenten period is brought forward to the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent. Therefore in real time Lent lasts 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday.

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2. Why the 40 days?

Our period of Lent is meant to emulate the same 40 days and nights that Jesus fasted in the wilderness, resisting Satan’s temptation. (This was an easy fact!)

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 10: Cardinal Timothy Dolan distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral on February 10, 2016 in New York City. The day marks the start of the lent for Catholics world wide. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images/AFP

Cardinal Timothy Dolan distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on February 2016 in New York City. Andrew Renneisen | Getty Images | AFP

3. Why the ashes?

The ashes are a stark reminder of our own mortality. When placed on the forehead in the sign of a cross, the words from Genesis 3:19: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” reinforce the point. Although some priests may say: “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” based on Mark 1:15.

4. Where do the ashes come from?

Remember the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday (the celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem celebrated the week before Easter Sunday)? Well, those blessed palms were burned and saved for this year’s Ash Wednesday Mass.

Palm Sunday Holy Mass in St Peter’s square, March 2016. Antoine Mekary | Aleteia

5. How long should you wear the ashes?

Some believers wear the ashes for the day, as a show of their own humility in this time of penitence. However, Catholics are not obliged to receive the ashes at all, let alone keep them on for an extended period of time. Some people might also feel it isn’t appropriate in their place of work or for their other obligations on the day. It is more important to remember the symbolism of the ashes, and to carry that with you throughout the Lenten period.

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6. Not a Holy Day of Obligation

Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation. However, Catholics are encouraged to attend Church and mark the start of Lent.

7. Abstinence and fasting requirements

Canon Law in 1983 sets out the requirements for abstinence and fasting. While meat is regularly off our Friday menus, it too is not served on Ash Wednesday. What you might not know that this applies from 14 years of age to death. Fasting however, on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, is for adults from their 18th birthday to their 59th birthday. What constitutes a fast? Canon Law stipulates that instead of sitting down to those three regular meals, Catholics should eat one main meal, or two small meals (that constitute one main meal) in the day. There are exceptions for when you do not need to fast including; being pregnant, sick, a manual worker, or that your refusal of food might cause offense. While milk doesn’t break a fast, a milkshake does, so time to resist those cravings! And of course imposing a personal penance on yourself, such as giving up chocolate, is also encouraged—although doing this for weight loss purposes is definitely cheating!

Brooke Lark | Unsplash

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8. How far does Ash Wednesday date back?

Although there is no specific date, the tradition of Ash Wednesday is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great between 590—604. Just think of the number of Catholics who’ve shared in the ritual over the centuries: that’s a lot of burned palms!

9. It’s not just for Catholics

During the Mass, non-Catholics are welcome to receive the ashes, too. This might seem a little strange but it is a perfect opportunity for those of all faiths, or those who have no faith, to experience a period of repentance and mourning: it’s about saying we’re sorry, and we’ve all got something to be sorry about. It’s also a time of sacrifice and forgiveness and you can’t get better food for the soul than that.

10. Ash Wednesday & Saint David

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on the feast day of Saint David, March 1, and there couldn’t be a more fitting saint to share this day with. David founded a monastery in Wales, where both he and his monks drank no beer or wine, as he practiced extreme asceticism—abstaining from all forms of indulgence.

So how did you do? Did you already know these facts … even about Pope Gregory the Great? … Share with your friends to see who among you is an Ash Wednesday expert!

Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner was born in London and has been living in Paris for 14 years. She spends her time working as an English consultant, acting as taxi driver to her four children, and wondering if she'll ever be as stylish as the French.

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