Ash Wednesday: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile during World Youth Day. (Getty)

In 2014, Ash Wednesday falls on March 5.

It marks the beginning of Lent, which is the preparation for Easter, which falls on April 20 this year. Deacon Keith Fournier told followers on, “We move out of the cold barrenness of winter and, as the days grow longer, long for the promise of New Life which comes with Spring.”

Here’s what you need to know about the holy day’s meaning.

1. Catholics Are Asked to Abstain & Fast

This is done as a form of repentance from our sins.
People 14 and older must refrain from eating meat, and those from 18-60 must fast.

Pope Paul VI addressed these rules of fasting in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution :

The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom.

Sundays are considered feast days and these rules do not apply.

2. It’s the First Day of Lent

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Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York. (Getty)

Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Pope Francis tweeted this sentiment on Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the season.

According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the dessert. Lent is technically 46 days, including six Sundays.

Fournier described the Lenten journey on as:

Lent, for those willing to receive it, is meant to be a gift to each of us as individuals. A time for reflection, repentance and contemplation, geared toward conversion.

3. Ashes Are Drawn on Foreheads

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A priest, minister, or trained layperson can distribute ashes. They are put on the forehead in the form of a cross, representing human mortality.

when the ashes are drawn on the forehead, the priest say one of these:

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

“Repent, and hear the good news.”

Theologian Maggi Dawn wrote about the solemnity of those words, “you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
However, she did agree that it’s a good reminder of the lives we’ve been called to live.

She said, “When we look our mortality in the face, the inevitability of our own death asks of us, ‘What are you going to do with the life you have?’

On Palm Sunday, which is a week before the Easter holiday, palms are given at mass. They signify the palm branches that were put in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. These palms are burned and used on the following Ash Wednesday.

Before the ashes are given out, the priest blesses them.

4. Jesus & The Bible Never Mentioned Ash Wednesday

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According to

Ash Wednesday is actually of pagan origin and was admitted into the church beliefs of the Catholic Church a few hundred years after Christ.

When we look at the history of ashes in The Bible, however, we can find one in the Old Testament. American Catholic reports that the prophet Jeremiah, for example, says, “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.”

The prophet Daniel also can be found in The Bible, saying, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.”

Even though we have Scriptural evidence of ashes, the use of them in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of it’s history, claims American Catholic.

The first liturgy for Ash Wednesday that included ashes was in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960.

5. Not Just Catholics Celebrate the Holiday

It is mostly observed by the Roman Catholics, as well as Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations.

The Washington Post reports that more than 200 Protestant congregations across the country now distribute ashes in public places on Ash Wednesday.

According to the Daily News, Presbyterian Welcome, an LGBT-friendly non-profit in New York City, has started “Ashes to Go.” Their aim is to target people who may not feel connected to any one church or don’t have time to stop in during their work day to get ashes.

As a result, New Yorkers can get ashes among the busy streets of their city.

Essayist and Christian T.S. Elliot even wrote a poem about the holy day. “Ash Wednesday” is the first long poem he penned after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism.

Parishioners at SMB, an Anglican church in England, tweeted this morning photo:

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