Should Catholics Keep Their Ashes on All Day on Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday
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On Ash Wednesday, many Catholics mark the beginning of the season of Lent by going to mass and having the priest place a smear of ashes on their foreheads, as a sign of their own mortality. Should Catholics keep their ashes on all day, or can they take their ashes off after Mass?

Ash Wednesday Practice

The practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a popular devotion for Roman Catholics (and even for certain Protestants). Even though Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, many Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday in order to receive the ashes, which are rubbed on their foreheads in the form of the Cross (the practice in the United States), or sprinkled on top of their heads (the practice in Europe).

As the priest distributes the ashes, he tells each Catholic, "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel," as a reminder of one's mortality and of the need to repent before it is too late.

No Rules, Just Right

Most (if not all) Catholics who attend Mass on Ash Wednesday choose to receive ashes, although there are no rules requiring that they do so. Similarly, anyone who receives ashes can decide for himself how long he wishes to keep them on. While most Catholics keep them on at least throughout Mass (if they receive them before or during Mass), a person could choose to rub them off immediately. And while many Catholics keep their Ash Wednesday ashes on until bedtime, there's no requirement that they do so.

Wearing one's ashes throughout the day on Ash Wednesday helps Catholics remember why they received them in the first place; a way to humble themselves at the very beginning of Lent and as a public expression of their faith. Still, those who feel uncomfortable wearing their ashes outside of the church, or those who, because of jobs or other duties, cannot keep them on all day should not worry about removing them. In the same way, if the ashes naturally fall off, or if they are accidentally rubbed off, there is no need to be concerned.

A Day of Fasting and Abstinence

Rather than keeping the visible mark on one's forehead, the Catholic church values the observance of the rules of fasting and abstinence. Ash Wednesday is a day of strict fasting and abstinence from all meat and food made with meat.

In fact, every Friday during Lent is a day of abstinence: every Catholic over the age of 14 must abstain from eating meat on those days. But on Ash Wednesday, practicing Catholics also fast, which is defined by the church as consuming only one full meal per day along with two small snacks that don't add up to a full meal. Fasting is considered a way to remind and unite the parishioners with Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the Cross.

As the first day in Lent, Ash Wednesday is when Catholics begin the high holy days, the celebration of the founder Jesus Christ's sacrifice and rebirth, in whichever way they choose to remember it.