Ash Wednesday Begins 40 Days of Lenten Season

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in observance of the beginning of the season of Lent on March 6. Catholics around the world will 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, Cardinal Wuerl noted the Lenten season is our pilgrimage toward greater intimacy with Jesus and his Gospel through repentance of our sin and acceptance of God’s mercy.

“During the penitential season, during this Lent, and whenever we struggle to set aside what might keep us from our journey to holiness, we need simply to be reminded, as those ashes will do, that it is God who continually calls, and it is God who continually waits, and it is God’s mercy that is always there to embrace each one of us,” he said.

The ashes, the cardinal said, are not merely a “visible sign” of our human frailty and our need to be cleansed from sin, but announcement of our faith and our call to share the healing we receive.

“As we receive the ashes, and as we walk out of this cathedral today, may they be not just a sign of our contrition, but a proclamation of our faith, that the mercy of God, working in each one of us, is capable of renewing the face of the earth,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

One way Catholics are encouraged to experience the healing and love of God this Lent is through the sacrament of reconciliation. The Archdiocese of Washington, in partnership with the Diocese of Arlington, present The Light is On, an initiative where all Catholic churches across the DC metro area will be open for quiet prayer and confessions on Wednesday evenings throughout Lent (March 13, 20, 27, April 3 and 10). 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 21 this year.