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Dos and Don'ts of Ash Wednesday

Shalu Bhatti Oct 13, 2020
Most of us believers look forward to this blessed day that marks the onset of the Lenten period - the Ash Wednesday. With an intention to guide the followers of this day, we help you understand the dos and don'ts of Ash Wednesday, so that you get a clear idea on how to go about it.

Did You Know?

Ash Wednesday has never fallen on 29 February till now, but shall occur on this date in the year 2096. Other than 2096, the other leap years that will have Ash Wednesday on this date are 2468, 2688, 2840, and 2992.
Not much has been mentioned about this day in the Bible, however, some Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians observe this day as the one that marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent.
Ash Wednesday is the day when believers go to the church to pray and repent for their sins. Ashes made out of the palm leaves of the previous year's Palm Sunday are blessed and placed on their foreheads, as a sign of the cross.
In some cultures, the ashes are sprinkled on the head. This gesture is usually accompanied by the words, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
God created us with dust, and while living in this world we tend to forget about our mortality, this is the day where we all must be reminded that it is none other than God who created us and sent us to this world, and ultimately, to Him we shall return.
A pure and holy life will make us worthy of being the residents of heaven, while engaging in sins will condemn us to the fires of hell. Ash Wednesday, therefore, plays a crucial role in the life of every believer, to repent for the times they have sinned, become selfish or deprived someone else of a blessing, out of will, ignorance, or mere laziness.

Rules and Obligations for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the period of 40 days of fasting. The number of days are taken from the Bible, where Jesus also fasted for 40 days in the desert, and was tempted by Satan. Therefore, many Christians take the path of Christ during the Lenten period, and fast and abstain from things that they are habituated to.
Through this, they come to understand the satisfaction that comes from hunger and abstinence, the purity that imparts when one denies some basic pleasures of life, and gives them to those in need, through charity and alms-giving.
A lot of Christians wish to observe this day in the right manner, but with so many dos and don'ts that come from all possible sources, it is natural for one to get confused or be mislead.
To help our fellow brothers and sisters with some obvious dilemmas that may come on this day, we have answered the most commonly asked questions regarding fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday. Note, that not all Christian denominations abide by the same set of rules. Kindly contact your church authorities to know how to go about it in your congregation.

Can you eat meat on Ash Wednesday?

No. Biblical writings denote that abstaining from meat is a sign of repentance―which Ash Wednesday is all about! In the Old Testament, the book of Daniel states in Chapter 10, verses 2-3, "At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over."
Meat is supposed to be a food that is consumed when we feast and celebrate. It is invariably a "choice food" that is consumed for pleasure, and is not a basic food, for sure. Therefore, as Ash Wednesday is the day that marks for mourning of our sins and wrongdoings, it is not appropriate to consume meat on this day.

Can you consume milk on Ash Wednesday?

Yes and No. The Western Rite of the Church allows believers (including those who reside in America) to consume milk and its products, fish, eggs, and condiments or foods that are made using animal fat.
However, the Eastern Rites do not allow this. So, if you're a Roman Catholic, then it is okay to consume milk. Although the Code of Canon Law says it's okay to have tea, coffee, protein shakes, etc., note that excessive consumption of beverages that contain calories, breaches the spirit of the fast.

Are you allowed to drink alcohol on Ash Wednesday?

No. This has already been answered under the first question on this list. Other than abstaining from meat, the book of Daniel also states to refrain from wine, which implies that alcohol too, is not allowed on Ash Wednesday, or Good Friday, or other Fridays of the Lenten season.
We consume alcohol not to quench our thirst, but to satiate our desire for it. It is a drink for parties and pleasure. Therefore, consuming alcohol in any form is not acceptable on this holy day of penance and repentance. However, in certain cultures, including the Slavic tradition, beer is allowed.
There is also a legend which states that the Benedictine monks of Neudeck ob der Au, had developed a special beer called the doppelbock for their Lenten fasting. This brew was rich in carbohydrates, vitamins, and necessary calories to keep them steady during Lent. Apparently, they drank only water and beer during this time.

How many meals can you eat on Ash Wednesday?

One proper meal and two small snacks. Many people get confused as to how much food equals two snacks. It is explained that the two snacks shouldn't be equivalent to a full-fledged second meal. However, there are many believers who go a step further beyond the prescribed norms and eat lesser than the amount of food suggested by authorities. Some believers don't eat any proper meal on this day, at all.

Who is allowed to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday?

The Code of Canon Law states in Can. 1252, "The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance."
This implies that all those who have attained their age of adulthood and have completed 59 years of their lives, are bound to fast on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays of Lent. When it comes to abstinence, all those, whose age is 14 to 59, are expected to abstain from meat, alcohol, or any other food or habit that is difficult to resist.

Is it mandatory to follow all these rules and obligations?

All Catholics whose health permits them to follow these set rules and norms are expected to abide by them. However, as mentioned earlier, different Christian denominations give importance to different aspects of this day.
For instance, the Latin Catholic Church gives importance to fasting, abstinence, and repentance on Ash Wednesday, while the Anglican Book of Common Prayer highlights this day as a day of fasting. Also, there are other denominations that consider these practices to be optional, and mainly focus on repentance of sins and charity.

In Conclusion ...

The Bible has always encouraged us believers to fast and pray. Sacrifice for the benefit of others is also welcome in the eyes of God. When the Church guides its congregation to follow certain dos and don'ts, the main intention behind is to pave a way that the repenting Christians can take to experience the importance of sacrifice, prayer, and abstinence.
Sacrifice is personal and varies from person to person. In fact, many followers don't fast during Lent, but take an oath to give up one addiction or a pleasurable habit. For instance, many people give up smoking, judging others, being more courteous towards others, etc.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that this is the time to introspect our spiritual, emotional, and moral sides.

Ash Wednesday is a day that reminds us all that irrespective of taking refuge in God, we have knowingly or unknowingly sinned against Him. This day tells us that He is ever-willing to forgive us if we only repent from our heart, mind, and soul.
In the Bible, ashes have always been associated with mourning and repentance. Irrespective of whatever we have done in our lives so far, let us come together this Ash Wednesday to proudly bear the ashes on our foreheads, and proclaim that we are saved by God. Amen.