This time next week it will be Lent. Talk about a quick turn around. It feels like Christmas was only a few weeks ago!
I prepared the following notices for our parish bulletins this weekend. (You can tell I’m happily occupied with work when I consecutively post non-exclusive material to my blog!)
Ash Wednesday obligations
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence from meat. In Australia all Catholics over 18 and under 60 are obliged to fast. Tradition recommends one full-sized meal in the middle of the day, and two small-sized meals in the morning and the evening, which together don’t equal the large meal. Snacking between meals is not permitted. Of course, health considerations and common sense must define each person’s observance of the fast.
All Catholics aged over 14 are obliged to abstain from meat. Children aren’t obliged to fast or abstain from meat, but parents are asked to ensure they are taught the true meaning of penance.
We are not obliged to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday, nor are we obliged to receive ashes. Still, the reception of ashes is a very popular custom, and an ancient one: at least 1,000 years old.
Who can receive ashes?
Unlike the discipline regarding sacraments (communion, absolution, marriage, etc.), the Church does not regulate who can receive sacramentals.
Non-Catholics are welcome to receive the ashes, which is a sign not only of Christ’s call to conversion, but also our personal response to his call. Even people who aren’t baptised, and people who don’t believe that Jesus is Lord, identify with conversion and self-improvement.
The ashes are also a reminder of our mortality. Again, every person – Christian or not – will die, and even the pagan philosophers insisted on the benefits of pondering death, and dying well.
Who can minister ashes?
Anyone can place the ashes on a person’s head. You are welcome to take some blessed ashes home in an envelope and place the ashes on the foreheads of people who can’t get to an Ash Wednesday liturgy.
Should we keep the ashes on, or wash them off?
There is no right or wrong rule about this. It is a personal decision made in dialogue with the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, our Lord instructs us:
“Be careful not to parade your good deeds to attract notice … When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that no one knows you’re fasting except your Father who sees all.”
Therefore, many people wash the ashes off soon after they receive them.
Other people choose to keep the ashes visible throughout the day, as an exercise of religious freedom, or to witness to their faith. It is certainly a conversation starter! With the Holy Spirit’s help, you might be able to explain Lent to a colleague or friend in an edifying and attractive way.