St. Anthony Messenger

Rediscovering Catholic Traditions: Ashes and Fasting

ashes on a forehead | Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

“You’re filthy! Wash your hands before dinner!” Those words have been said by myriad mothers to millions of children. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the time when Holy Mother Church reminds her children to clean their souls before the Easter feast.

Wearing ashes—holy and blessed dirt, but dirt nonetheless—on my face is a reminder that my soul needs to be scrubbed clean. Fasting is one means the Church uses to purify its children: a sanctified bristle brush for the Holy Spirit to use. It scours the soul and helps clean off particularly stubborn sins and faults.

Dust and Ashes

When I receive ashes, the priest traces the sign of the cross on my forehead as a mark of ownership by Christ. Ashes remind me that I have sinned. In biblical times, it was common to do penance by wearing sackcloth and ashes. Ashes also remind me that death comes for all, rubbing mortality in my face: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But isn’t wearing ashes just a public display, the kind frowned upon by Our Lord? What about the command, “Wash your face and comb your hair” (see Matthew 6:17), when fasting?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance…does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart...” (#1430).

But Catholicism is caught up in the corporeal, concrete and sometimes gritty reminders of spiritual truths. This interior dimension is expressed in exterior signs.

What the soul believes, the body expresses. Wearing ashes signifies repentance for sin. Fasting is a reminder from the soul to the body that there is more to life than food.

Chocolate, Romance, and Whine

Each year, my family discusses what each person is giving up for Lent. To balance self-denial, my parents emphasized that we also should do some thing—an extra prayer and a good deed. Fasting is just going hungry if the emptiness is left void; fasting is a way to make room for God. We avoid food to awaken a hunger for Christ, the Bread of Life.

Fasting is a lesson in self-discipline. As a child, I often gave up chocolate. Before we were married, my husband and I gave up kisses on Fridays and all through Lent. Recently I’ve given up complaining about dishes and diapers.

These are not bad things that I had to forgo (except complaining), but reminders that God is more important than my desires. Rather than bowing to the belly god at the cold shrine of refrigeration, fasting puts things in perspective.

Finally, Lenten fasting is an imitation of Jesus, who prepared for his ministry with 40 days of fasting and prayer. When we fast, we draw near to the crucified Christ. We can offer up our hunger to him who said, “I thirst,” for the salvation of souls.

Perhaps it shows the wild balance of Catholicism that the greatest feast is preceded by a great fast. We rejoice more fully when joy follows trial, when sweetness follows sacrifice. We value more what is bought with suffering. Lenten fasting is part of the soul’s preparation not only for Easter, but also for the heavenly banquet, the everlasting Easter celebration.


There’s something very honest about ashes, a symbol acknowledging our dependence on God. We were created from dust and will eventually return to dust. Attendance at Masses on Ash Wednesday is always very high. Receiving ashes is a sacramental action also shared with Episcopalians and Lutherans.

In the Old Testament, when Job saw the inadequacy of his previous thinking about God, he said, “I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). Jesus uses “sackcloth and ashes” as symbols of a person’s desire to repent (Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13).

Next Month: Stations of the Cross

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