Ashes and Fasting on Ash Wednesday

I am Catholic, but I attend a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts school, which means that I know a lot of people from a lot of religious (or non-religious) backgrounds. So when I show up to class and my tutoring job with black ashes on my forehead in a smudged impression of a cross, I get some weird looks and a question: 

 

Why am I wearing ashes? 

 

No big deal. The good thing is that I am happy to answer it! 

 

Why do Catholics wear ashes on Ash Wednesday? 

Answer: we wear ashes to remind ourselves that this world doesn’t last forever, that we have something better coming (Heaven and eternal life with God), and that we need to prepare for that better eternity by sacrificing something. (Side note: The ashes are from the previous year’s Palm Sunday -- the Sunday before Easter --, which is when we remember how Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem shortly before He was crucified.)  

 

Another question I often get is: why do we fast/what is fasting like? Basically, adults up to a certain age (about 60) are supposed to both abstain from meat and fast on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent. We can eat fish (and alligator!) instead of meat on those days, and fasting consists of eating less food than normal for the day by eating one full meal and two small meals that don’t equal one meal together. Why do we do this? 

 

First, meat. Meat is a traditionally celebratory food. Jesus died on a Friday, so on Fridays during Lent we remember His suffering and death and abstain from celebrations, even small ones. (We still celebrate birthdays, don’t worry). 

 

Next, fasting. We fast on Fridays for much the same reason we abstain from meat: to remember and honor Jesus’ sacrifice and offer something up for Him. Pregnant women and sick people do not have to fast. 

 

I hope this clears it up for anyone wondering! Have a good and productive Lenten season!