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What does Ash Wednesday mean?
Question from Gabby Bernadette on 1/12/2006:

I'm an 18 year old Roman Catholic and I still don't know the meaning of Ash Wednesday. What does it mean? And why do Catholics stop eating meat on Fridays in Lent? Thank you.

Gabby Bernadette

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 1/16/2006:

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season. It is a movable observance, six and one-half weeks before Easter. It was set as the first day of Lent by Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) with the extension of an earlier and shorter penitential season to a total period including 40 weekdays of fasting before Easter. It is a day of fast and abstinence when ashes are blessed and imposed on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them of their obligation to do penance of sins, to seek spiritual renewal by means of prayer, fasting, good works and by bearing with patience and for God’s purposes the trials and difficulties of everyday life. The ashes are used to mark the forehead with the Sign of the Cross, with the reminder: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” or: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” An excellent article on this topic is available in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia. The URL is:

The Code of Canon Law (can. 1250) stipulates that the season of Lent (and Fridays) are penitential days and times in the universal Church. Such practices in Lent are intended to dispose the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery.

Abstinence refers specifically to the prohibition against eating meat, not including eggs, milk, milk products, and sauces made from animal fats. Fish is permitted, as are all cold-blooded animals (such as frogs, clams, turtles, etc.).

The eating of fish – in those areas where seafood has traditionally been easily obtained – began as a satisfactory alternative to eating meat. As it provides a suitable replacement, fish (and seafood in general) became a virtual staple in many areas. There are different opinions as to whether active symbolism is involved, but in general the popularity of fish is merely as an appropriate form of abstinence. It is worth noting, of course, that in those areas where fish is abundant and highly varied, other foods might be considered; equally, the substitution of lobster, crab legs or paella for chicken might not be viewed as being especially penitential. The Second Vatican Council document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (nos. 109-110), declared concerning Lent:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. Hence: a) More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of them, which used to flourish in bygone days, are to be restored as may seem good. b) The same is to apply to the penitential elements. As regards instruction it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only a social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners. During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful.


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