Q. The season of Lent begins today, Ash Wednesday. Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation? In other words, am I required as a Catholic to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday?
A. No. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. In Canada, the holy days of obligation are as follows: every Sunday (which obviously includes Easter Sunday), Christmas Day, and January 1 (which is the feast of Mary, Mother of God). It is a mortal (grave) sin to miss Mass on those days, and if one has missed Mass on a holy day of obligation (unless it was for a very serious reason), one must go to Confession before receiving the Eucharist again.
Having said this, holy days of obligation are really a “bare minimum” for Mass attendance. A Catholic who is serious about his or her relationship with Jesus Christ will naturally look for more opportunities to be with Christ in prayer. The greatest prayer of the Church is the Mass, and Jesus is present in the Eucharist in his true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in a way that he is not present elsewhere.
Going to Mass on Ash Wednesday is a very salutary practice, and it is a fitting way to begin Lent.
Q. Is Ash Wednesday a day of fasting and abstinence from meat?
A. Yes. All Catholics aged 18-59 must participate on a day of fasting, which consists of the following: one may eat one regular-sized meal and two snacks which, when put together, do not equal or surpass the size of the one regular meal. Fluids, like water and other beverages, do not count against the fast.
If one has a medical condition that requires more food be eaten (for example, medicine that must regularly be taken with food), or if one is diabetic, pregnant or a nursing mother, or is a soldier on active duty (there are other situations that could qualify), one can be exempted from the fast by one’s pastor.
All Catholics aged 14 and up are required to abstain from eating meat on a day of abstinence. Fish, fruits and vegetables are fine.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence. Every Friday in Lent is a day of abstinence in the United States, while in Canada, it’s every Friday of the year, which is the universal norm in the Church.
Q. Does one have to be Catholic to receive ashes on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday?
A. No. In fact, it is a common occurrence to see many people of other faiths – or no faith at all – walk into a Catholic Church to receive the ashes. This is especially so at our great Cathedrals in major cities. There is something about this ritual that draws many people in. The biblical quote from Genesis 3 that is spoken to the recipient (“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return”) reminds us that we are creatures, not gods. We will die, be buried (return to the dust), and give an account of our lives to an unbiased judge – Almighty God. The common experience of human sin and mortality is, I believe what draws so many non-Catholics to Ash Wednesday.
The second part of what is said to each recipient of ashes is the Good News: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. For each one of us who turns away from sin, trusts in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, and attempts with God’s help to change one’s life, there is new hope. In the Bible, “believe” does not mean to simply give mental assent to a fact; it means “become obedient to” the Gospel. Changing our life to become more like Jesus Christ is a big part of what Lent is all about.