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

The Etiquette of Ashes

Ash Wednesday
Catholics pray during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. 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?

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.

Remember, Man, That Thou Art Dust

Wearing one's ashes throughout the day on Ash Wednesday helps 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 is observing the rules of fasting and abstinence because Ash Wednesday is a day of strict fasting and abstinence from all meat and food made with meat. For more details, see Can Catholics Eat Meat on Ash Wednesday?, and for ideas for Ash Wednesday meals, check out this extensive collection of Lenten Recipes: Meatless Recipes for Lent and Throughout the Year.

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Richert, Scott P. "Should Catholics Keep Their Ashes on All Day on Ash Wednesday?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 8, 2017, Richert, Scott P. (2017, February 8). Should Catholics Keep Their Ashes on All Day on Ash Wednesday? Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "Should Catholics Keep Their Ashes on All Day on Ash Wednesday?" ThoughtCo. (accessed December 17, 2017).