Ash Wednesday Begins 40 Days of Penitential Lenten Season; Ash Distribution Different This Year Due to Ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On February 17, the Catholic Church will begin the holy season of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Catholics around the world will fast and receive ashes as a symbol of mourning and conversion.

This year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has published guidance detailing the distribution of ashes in order to avoid physical contact. Rather than the traditional marking of the Sign of the Cross with ashes on the forehead of each person, the priest will bless the ashes and address those present, reciting once the formula: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  The priest then will sprinkle the ashes on each person’s head without saying anything and without any physical contact.

The custom of sprinkling ashes on the head – not the forehead – is an ancient practice of the Church still used widely in many countries around the world.

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 but not obliged to receive ashes, made from the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday Mass, as a reminder of our need for mercy and forgiveness.

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 this year on April 4.

Catholics are encouraged to experience the healing mercy and love of God this season through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Archdiocese of Washington, in partnership with the Diocese of Arlington, presents The Light is On, an initiative where Catholic churches across the DC metro area will be open with continued Covid-19 safety precautions for quiet prayer and confessions throughout Lent. Find times, locations, and confession resources at