By Eli Pacheco

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian church. It is a prayerful, somber day, a reminder that humans are mortal and our need to reconcile with God. It begins a period of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer until Easter. The 40-day period also recognizes the time Jesus resisted the devil’s temptations in the desert.  

People of faith often embark on services of penitence on Ash Wednesday, such as giving up creature comforts or vices.  

Others prefer to add acts of goodwill to their lives for the 40 days (about 1 and a half months) from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Depending on when Easter is, Ash Wednesday can fall on any date from Feb. 4 to March 11. 

Ash Wednesday meaning 

Receiving ashes signifies that we repent for our sins and look to the Lenten season to address our faults. It can be the beginning of our hearts’ purification, the holiness within us growing. 

Did you know ... 

... that churches observing Lent do not sing hymns that include the phrase “Alleluia”? It is a Hebrew word that means “Praise the Lord.” During Lent, the Church adopts the same spirit of exile experienced by Moses and the Israelites as they wandered in the desert for 40 years, saying “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:4).  

What happens at Ash Wednesday Mass? 

You will notice a solemn tone to the day’s Mass. Expect extended periods of silence.  

You will be invited to receive ashes on your forehead. The celebrant will spread them in a cross pattern and say: “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” The cross also imitates the spiritual seal a Christian receives at baptism.  

Ashes are a physical sign of our sinfulness and a reminder of our need for penance. They also remind us that one day we will die, and our bodies will return to dust. 

Did you know ... 

... receiving ashes is not a sacrament, so they do not have to be administered by a member of the clergy. Some churches offer take-home packets for people who cannot attend in-person. 

Ash Wednesday fasting 

Roman Catholics fast and do not eat meat on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14, 2024) and Fridays throughout Lent.  

Fasting does not mean a complete abstinence from food. A fasting person is allowed one full meal daily. They have the option of having two smaller meals, too, but they cannot equal another full meal. 

Did you know ... 

All Catholic adults aged 18 to 59 are obliged to fast. The physically and mentally ill, and people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, are excluded from fasting. Pregnant or nursing women are also excluded from fasting. 

How often is Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day? 

In 2024, Ash Wednesday will be Feb. 14 – the same as St. Valentine’s Day. This is a rare occurrence. In this century, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day three times: in 2018, 2024 and 2029. 

The two holidays, both of religious beginnings, have little in common. Valentine’s Day includes candy, cards, flowers, and fancy dinners. Catholics are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday, making Valentine’s Day reveling difficult.  

If you still want to treat your sweetheart to Valentine’s Day dinner, consider doing it on Mardi Gras!  

Did you know ... 

... that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation? Yet, it is one of the most popular Masses not on a Sunday in the liturgical calendar.  

Ash Wednesday verses from the Bible 

Christians worldwide wear an ash cross on their foreheads, received during Mass. This signifies the need for penance.  

Ashes are part of Ash Wednesday Mass, which also commonly includes verses such as these:  

Matthew 6:16-18 

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” 

Ecclesiastes 3:20  

“All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” 

Psalm 24:3-5 

“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god. They will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God their Savior.” 

Did you know ... 

... that this year’s ashes are made from burning palms blessed from the previous year’s Palm Sunday? They are consecrated with holy water and incense. 

Frequently asked questions 

Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation? 

No. Catholics are not required to attend Ash Wednesday Mass. (However, all are encouraged to do so.) Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting, not feasting.   

When is Ash Wednesday 2024? 

Ash Wednesday in 2024 will be Feb. 14, the same day as Valentine’s Day. If indulgent dinners or candy hearts are in your plans, you might celebrate a day early – or wait until the day after Ash Wednesday. 

Where can I receive ashes on Ash Wednesday? 

To receive ashes, find a Catholic Church near you. Some may offer more than one Mass throughout the day. You can view a list of Franciscan parishes on our website

Who celebrates Ash Wednesday? 

These faithful do: 

  • Catholics 

  • Lutherans 

  • Moravians 

  • Anglicans 

  • Methodists 

  • Nazarenes 

Also, Reformed tradition churches, such as: 

  • Some Congregationalist 

  • Continental Reformed 

  • Presbyterian churches 

On Ash Wednesday, can you eat meat? 

No, you should not eat meat on Ash Wednesday. Catholics are also asked to abstain from meat every Friday during Lent. Popular recipe websites have catalogs of Lent-friendly dishes for Ash Wednesday and all Lenten Fridays. Ash Wednesday is an obligatory day of fasting.