Should Catholics Keep Their Ashes on All Day on Ash Wednesday?

Am I in Trouble if My Ashes Fall Off?

Ash Wednesday
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics mark the beginning of the season of Lent by receiving ashes on their head, as a sign of their own mortality. Should Catholics keep their ashes on all day, or can they take their ashes off after Mass?

Ash Wednesday Practice

The practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a popular devotion for Roman Catholics (and even for certain Protestants). Even though Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, many Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday in order to receive the ashes, which are sprinkled on top of their heads (the practice in Europe) or rubbed on their foreheads in the form of the Cross (the practice in the United States).

As the priest distributes the ashes, he tells each Catholic, "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel"—a reminder of our mortality and of our need to repent before it is too late.

No Rules, Just Right

While very few (if any) Catholics who attend Mass on Ash Wednesday choose not to receive ashes, no one is required to receive ashes. Similarly, anyone who receives ashes can decide for himself how long he wishes to keep them on. While most Catholics keep them on at least throughout Mass (if they receive them before or during Mass), a person could choose to rub them off immediately. And while many Catholics keep their Ash Wednesday ashes on until bedtime, there's no requirement that they do so.

Wearing one's ashes throughout the day on Ash Wednesday is an aid to help us remember why we received them in the first place, and it can be a good way to humble ourselves at the very beginning of Lent, especially if we have to go out in public. Still, those who feel uncomfortable wearing their ashes outside of church, or those who, because of jobs or other duties, cannot keep them on all day should not worry about removing them. In the same way, if your ashes naturally fall off, or if you accidentally rub them off, there is no need to be concerned.

A Day of Fasting and Abstinence

Far more important than keeping the visible mark on your forehead is observing the rules of fasting and abstinence. Ash Wednesday is a day of strict fasting and abstinence from all meat and food made with meat.

Every Friday in Lent is a day of abstinence: every Catholic over the age of 14 must abstain from eating meat on those days. But on Ash Wednesday, practicing Catholics also fast, defined as only one full meal per day along with two small snacks that don't add up to a full meal. Fasting is a way to remind and unite us with Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. As the first day in Lent, it is a way to begin the celebration of Christ's sacrifice and rebirth.

Celebrating Ash Wednesday

So, whether the mark of ashes on your forehead is visible or not, take time to remember what the ashes mean and celebrate the start of the high holy days in the Catholic church.