In observance of Ash Wednesday, believers pay penance by receiving their ashes and fasting. Throughout the Bible, penance is paid through abstinence, fasting, rest, and the use of ashes. Many observers of the Lenten season follow these directives entirely, while others choose their methods for showing penance and observe in their own way. For Catholics, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting.
Why is Fasting Part of Ash Wednesday?
Fasting is a way for Christians to honor the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. It is believed that by fasting, Christians are preparing themselves to fully celebrate and share in his resurrection. Therefore, fasting is a form of penance, asceticism, simplicity, and austerity. Throughout the Bible, Jesus leads his disciples to fast when traveling, and indicates that in his absence from earth, his disciples will fast to honor him and be close to him. They must not fast when they are with him, for he is near, but once he is no longer with his followers, they must draw near to him through fasting.
Christians choosing the discipline of fasting must do so with humility and sincerity, as fasting deprives the physical body of nourishment. During spiritual fasting, a believer must turn their focus on God for nourishment and replenishment, allowing him to fill their souls.
Is Fasting Mandatory?
The short answer is yes. Members of the Latin Catholic Church must observe Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in accordance with the church. This means that followers between the ages of 18 and 59 are allowed one full meal, plus two small meals throughout the day. Those outside of this range may eat in accordance with their needs. Furthermore, Latin Catholics over the age of 14 do not eat meat or meat products on either of these days, as well.
Eastern Catholic churches differ from church to church, and therefore should follow the directives of their specific church. For those observing Ash Wednesday outside of the Catholic faith, there are no obligatory observations.
Can You Eat Meat?
In 1966, Church law changed from prohibiting flesh meat on all Fridays throughout the year to abstaining on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Many Catholics observe this abstinence on all Fridays throughout Lent, choosing fish over flesh meat (beef, pork, poultry, etc.). Canon 1252 decrees that all people over the age of 14 are bound by the law of abstaining from meat.
Why give up meat? Meat represents the flesh. Jesus sacrificed his flesh on Good Friday. Therefore, abstinence from meat honors the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.
If you plan to partake in the Ash Wednesday tradition, enjoy a day of fasting and a small meal of fish and vegetables.