What Do You Say When You Receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, a 40-day (excluding Sundays) period of prayer, fasting, and repentance in preparation for the Easter season for Catholics. The day is marked by ashes smeared as a cross on the foreheads of the worshippers by the priest.. But what do you say when you’re receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday?

After the priest draws ashes on the worshiper’s forehead, the worshiper should make the sign of the cross and either say “Amen” or keep silent. The one receiving the ashes should not repeat what the priest says, that is the priest’s role and not the role of the laymen.

You might encounter Christians, particularly Catholics wearing a smudge of ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. It might be a bit startling unless you understand the meaning behind the religious practice.

Here’s what you should know about what’s said when receiving Ashes, what does it mean, and the celebration behind Ash Wednesday.


What Does the Priest Say When Applying Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Typically, the priest will dip their thumbs in the ashes and place a cross on your forehead. The mark is a sign of your preparation of your heart for Easter and reminding you of your insignificance without God placing value on you and your life.

As the priest applies ashes on Ash Wednesday, he says, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The priest can also say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The first recalls the warning that God gave Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:19). The second calls Christians to holiness (Mark 1:19).

These phrases are for the priest alone and the penitent worshipers are not to repeat them. The role of the priest is as a shepherd presently standing in the place of Christ as His steward. As Christ does, the priest is calling the sheep to come home and guiding them along the way.

What Is The Response Given To The Priest On Ash Wednesday?

Once the laymen receives the ashes in the form of a cross or simple ‘smudge’ on the forehead and the priest has called him to repentance and humbleness by one of two phrases, there is typically one of two responses that can be given by the worshiper. What is the response that should be given to the priest after ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Since repeating the phrases of the priest are not acceptable, for those receiving ashes there are one of two responses that can be given on Ash Wednesday.

  1. Amen – A verbal symbol of agreement with what the priest said.
  2. Silence – A humble sign of assent.

Both are essentially the same in their agreement with the statement and the act of wearing the ashes. Let’s look a little closer at each to find out why they are used.

Why Do Some Catholics Say Amen On Ash Wednesday?

As the one calling the sheep entrusted to him by Christ to repentance and holiness, it is the Priest’s role to say these phrases when giving out the ashes on Ash Wednesday. As laymen receiving ashes, it is proper to give your assent by saying “Amen”. But why do we say Amen when receiving ashes?

The word Amen is said by Catholics receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday as a verbal agreement to heed the call of the Priest. He admonishes the worshiper to remember God’s love in giving worth to us who are worthless without Him or calls the penitent to holiness like our Father in Heaven.

The meaning of the word used by Catholics and other Christians around the world is relatively the same across the board. It is used to give a verbal assent to some tenant, proclamation, or statement of faith to be believed.

Amen is commonly used after a prayer, creed, or other formal statement. It is spoken to express solemn ratification or agreement.


Why Some Catholics Remain Silent When Receiving Ashes?

In the ancient and some say original Latin right of the Catholic church used exclusively for centuries before council of Vatican II introduced the new liturgy, silence was viewed as the proper humble response to many parts of the liturgy. Is this why some Catholics remain silent when receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Catholics sometimes remain silent when receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday out of humbleness and respect. Though saying ‘Amen’ is not prideful, silence has been seen as a humble and respectful attitude for thousands of years. Those staying silent for the right intentions show humility.

In the traditional Latin liturgy, Catholics remain silent even when receiving the Eucharist. In newer forms of the liturgy communion is received standing and followed by the receiver saying, “Amen”.

In the much older forms practiced for many centuries before, those Catholics in good standing with the church would kneel and remain silent at the reception of the Eucharist. This silence was punctuated by the sign of the cross.

What Should Catholics Say After Receiving Ashes?

With all of this said, what should a Christian say after receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Either saying ‘Amen’ or remaining silent are both acceptable responses to receiving ashes from the priest on Ash Wednesday. Receiving ashes is not considered a sacrament, or part of the foundational salvation journey of a Catholic Christian. Either can be done with proper intention.

Intention is always the most important part of any sacramental or devotional act a believer can make according to the Catholic Church. There are prescribed ways of doing things according to tradition and liturgy, but even those without proper intention can be invalid.

Choosing to say Amen or remain silent along with wearing ashes in the first place falls under the devotional category, which by its nature relies primarily on the intention of the wearer.

It is safe for a Catholic to choose either option, and normally most will go with the practice of the majority of believers in their parish.

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What’s Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is a popular holy day in the liturgical calendar. It came from the ancient Jewish tradition of fasting and penance.

The spiritual practice entails wearing Ashes on the head. Priests will administer the ashes during mass, and everyone is invited to accept the ashes as a symbol of penance.

Why Do People Receive the Ashes?

Ashes have been a sign of mourning, penance, and sorrow among other negative things for thousands of years. It can be seen in the ancient Jewish customs laid out in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible or Old Testament). Here are a few references to illustrate how ashes were used in ancient Jewish culture.

All references are in the New Revised Standard Version (ACE).

Ashes Representing The Low Status Of Man Compared To God

Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.’

Genesis 18:27

Ashes Represent A Place Of Humility And Low Stature

Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Job 2:8

Ashes As A Sign Of Open Mourning And Lament

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry;

Esther 4:1

Ashes Are A Sign Of Repentance

And all the Israelite men, women, and children living at Jerusalem prostrated themselves before the temple and put ashes on their heads and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.

Judith 4:11

And in the words of Jesus Christ:

‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’

Matthew 11:21

As a result, the ashes develop a spirit of sacrifice, repentance, and humility.

Moreover, by receiving the ashes, the believers proclaim their intent of dying to worldly desires and living more in Christ’s image.

Why Do Catholics Display Ashes Smeared on Their Foreheads?

Wearing ashes publicly isn’t a way of drawing attention to the lent and fasting. Instead, it reminds the believers and the world of the importance of turning away from sin and that this life doesn’t last forever.

It is an outward sign of the inner commitment to holiness and humility within.

Where Do the Ashes Come From?

Christians, especially Catholics, celebrate Palm Sunday as the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem before His crucifixion. They hand out palm leaves, and some palms are saved and burnt into ashes to be used in the next year’s Ash Wednesday.

The ashes are christened with Holy Water and exposed to incense to gain its scent. The priests also bless the ashes using four prayers, which are thousands of years old.

What Do the Ashes Symbolize?

The ashes indicate the dust from which God made man. It also symbolizes grief, that human beings have sinned and caused division from God.

While the ashes symbolize repentance, they also remind people that God is merciful and gracious to those who seek Him with repenting hearts. God’s divine mercy is extremely paramount during Lent, and the church calls the people to seek it during the season with prayer, reflection, and penance.

Moreover, in John 9:6, Jesus healed a blind man with clay (spit and soil).

Hence, believers mark themselves with ashes as a new beginning during the onset of Lent. It is a reminder that the life, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes them whole and new again.

Is It a Must to Fast on Ash Wednesday?

Worshippers are expected to not eat meat on Ash Wednesday and give up meat on all Fridays during Lent. They’re also supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday. Fasting can mean eating only one full meal a day or two smaller meals that don’t add up a full meal.

In essence, this requirement is a partial fast. Some choose to do a complete fast where no food is eaten for a full 24 hours. This complete fast is not a requirement and is only undertaken as a private devotional act.

Note that the elderly and children are also exempted from the fasting requirement during Lent and Ash Wednesday. Nursing and pregnant women also don’t have to fast. Besides, if you have a health issue that makes fasting unhealthy, you can skip the spiritual ritual.

Has Ash Wednesday and Lent Changed?

Christians began fasting during Lent in the 5th century. This became a tradition to remember and reflect on the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness. During this time, Christians were forbidden to eat meat and had only one meal a day.

The Lent tradition has changed throughout the years, and today some claim it is less strict. Fasting has changed from the full fast of no food to the partial fast of one meal on fasting days. Yet, other things have stayed the same while even added devotional elements have appeared.

Here is a brief rundown on the current fasting and sacrifices Catholics make during the season of Lent.

  • All Fridays in Lent are no meat days as an obligation of all faithful Catholics. (Fish is the exception and can be eaten.)
    • Interesting note: McDonalds developed and offered their fish fillet sandwich to market to Catholics that refused to eat their burgers on Fridays when ‘no meat Fridays’ extended year round.
  • Fasting is observed as an obligation on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
    • This fasting allows for one meal with exceptions for elderly, young children, and the infirm.
  • Catholics choose one personal sacrifice for the entire Lenten season that can be any pleasurable item or practice.
    • Video Games, Sports, Movies, Television Shows, etc.
    • Caffeine, Alcohol, Sweets, Dessert, A specific food, etc.
    • Marital Sex, Vacations, Spa Treatments, etc.

Is It Okay to Wash Off the Ashes?

While most people prefer keeping the ashes until the evening as a reminder, it’s not necessary or obligatory. You can wash off the ashes after the mass.

Thus, those who feel uncomfortable wearing the Ash outside the church or have jobs or other duties to go to where they could pose a problem shouldn’t worry about removing them. Besides, the ashes often flake off by themselves or are accidentally rubbed away by absentminded forehead brushings.  

Is It Sinful To Not Get Ashes On Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday isn’t a Holy Day of obligation in the Catholic Church, and the ashes aren’t obligatory. So, you can choose whether to attend the mass or even if you want to receive the ashes.

That being said, it is an accepted devotional act in the Church. These hold higher positions of personal devotion than other more recent traditions.

There is also a decree by Christ himself, Saint Peter, and the Catholic Church to evangelize and spread the Catholic faith. Some see wearing the ashes as a form of evangelization. Those that are uncomfortable with speaking to others find it an acceptable alternative.

Can A Non-Catholic Receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

The ashes people receive in the Catholic church aren’t part of the sacraments, typically available for baptized Catholics only. Thus, anyone who isn’t Catholic or even baptized can receive the ashes on their forehead.

Moreover, you should remember that some protestant denominations such as Episcopalians, Anglicans, United Methodist, Lutherans, and Presbyterians hold worship or mass services on Ash Wednesday.

The What To Say When Receiving Ashes Wrap Up…

So in short, when recieving ashes on Ash Wednesday it is your intentions that make it efficacious more than your response to the act. Yet, sometimes you intentions will inform how you respond.

When the priest applies your ashes it is perfectly fine to simply make the sign of the cross and wake way for the next parishioner. It is also just as acceptable to make a verbal affirmation of your agreement with the act by saying ‘Amen’.

In most parishes there is a consensus in how to make the response and simply following what others do will be your best bet.

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