Observed by: Many Western Christians
Observances: Holy Mass, Service of worship, Divine Service, Divine Liturgy, Placing of ashes on the head
Date: Wednesday in seventh week before Easter (March 5 in 2015, February 18 in 2016)
For Catholics, Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, is a day of penance, which marks the beginning of Lent. It’s a movable feast.
The term penance can be summarized in three actions: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. The main goal is to prepare for Easter, the resurrection of Christ. This is a concrete way for Christians to unite with Jesus Christ, who Himself fasted forty days in the desert to prepare for his mission, that of his death and resurrection. This is also an opportunity to break away from all that away from God, so fasting does not always take the form of “starvation” but may be wider. Also, starve to better awareness of what so many people on Earth live daily, and stay in a welcoming attitude: the next in difficulty is not stranger to us (cf. Deus Caritas Est , 15). Indeed, the Apostle John says in his First Letter “But if a man has this world’s goods, and sees that his brother is in need, and keeps his heart shut against his brother, how is it possible for the love of God to be in him?“(1 Jn 3:17). In the early Christian community, ehat was set aside by those who fasted were redistributed to the poor.
In the Catholic Church, the faithful go to church to attend a celebration when the priest after the proclamation of the Gospel and the homily traces a cross on their foreheads with ashes, pronouncing it verse of Genesis (Gen 3:19): “[Man, remember]: for dust you are and to the dust you will go back.” (In Latin, Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris). The phrase “Repent, believe in the Gospel” is also used. This ceremony was instituted by Gregory I around the year 591. The imposition of ashes from the front to the penitent is a symbolic evocation of death. These ashes are obtained by burning branches blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday. The ashes are themselves solemnly blessed during the celebration.
The Roman Catholic faithful obedience are required for abstinence and fasting on Ash Wednesday (cannons 1249 to 1251, Code of Cannon Law) except in special cases (young children, the sick, the elderly, people with physical business challenging).