If there ever is a day of the year when you can spot Catholics at a glance, Ash Wednesday is it. It is the one time when Catholics literally wear their faith on their foreheads. In fact, Masses on Ash Wednesday are better attended than Masses on most holy days, except Christmas.
Ash Wednesday—February 6 this year—marks the beginning of Lent for Catholics. The ashes we receive on our forehead in the shape of a cross serve as an outward sign of our sinfulness and need for penance. The ashes also symbolize our mortality, a reminder that one day we will die and our bodies will return to dust. Hence the traditional words, “Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
The tradition of receiving ashes has its origins in the Old Testament, where sinners performed acts of public penance. It was Pope Urban II who in the 11th century recommended that all Catholics take part in the practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. In the 12th century it became customary that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday were made by burning the previous year’s palm branches.
Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. According to Church law, Catholics older than the age of 14 are supposed to abstain from meat. In addition, those between the ages of 18 and 59, not including pregnant or nursing mothers, should eat only one full meal. Smaller amounts of food—not as much as a full meal—may be eaten in the morning and either at lunchtime or dinner, depending on when you eat your full meal.