Ash Wednesday Begins 40 Days of Lenten Season

Catholics fast and receive ashes on the forehead as a sign of contrition

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in observance of the beginning of the season of Lent on February 26. Catholics around the world fast and receive ashes on their foreheads in the Sign of the Cross as a symbol of repentance and conversion.

Lent is the 40-day penitential period before the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead at Easter. The imposition of ashes on the head is an ancient Jewish tradition found in the Old Testament. Once a public sign of an individual’s repentance, it became part of the Church’s Lenten preparations by the seventh century. People of all faiths are invited to receive ashes, made from the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday Mass, as a reminder of our need for grace and forgiveness.

During his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted how, like many popular trademarks such as the “Chick-fil-A cows on their clever billboard ads or even the very iconic shape of the Coca-Cola bottle,” Ash Wednesday is the “Catholic branding day.”

“Today Catholics the world over are wearing a smudge on our foreheads that reminds us and those who see us that Lent has begun,” he said.

This “branding” is important in identifying a product or person, the Archbishop said; likewise, Catholics, through the ashes, are marked as “ambassadors for Christ” as St. Paul noted in the second reading.

“But what about tomorrow, and the day after that?” Archbishop Gregory asked. “How are we to continue to be the ambassadors that we are called to be for Christ” after the ashes are washed away?

The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, through charity and frequent reception of the sacraments “must become the signs that we present to the world.”

“We must continue to be the living signs of this holy time of year by the way that we conduct ourselves throughout these next seven weeks,” the archbishop said. The outward sign of ashes must signify and begin the call to renewed spiritual identity in Christ.

“May it be the beginning of a deep spiritual transformation,” Archbishop Gregory said as he concluded his homily.

One way Catholics are encouraged to experience the mercy of the Lenten season is through the sacrament of reconciliation. The Archdiocese of Washington, in partnership with the Diocese of Arlington, presents The Light is On, an initiative where all Catholic churches across the DC metro area will be open for quiet prayer and confession on Wednesday evenings throughout Lent (March 4, 11, 18, 25, April 1 and 8). Parishes will also make confession times more readily available during other days of the week.

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which is the Friday before Easter, Catholics between 18 and 59 years old observe a fast; guidelines allow one full meal per day, as well as two smaller meals that, combined, do not equal one full meal. Catholics age 14 and over abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent. Easter is observed on April 12 this year.