Do Catholics Have To Keep the Ashes On Until Bedtime? 

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 22 2012 11:36 AM

Ash Wednesday Do’s and Don'ts

Do you have to keep the ashes on your face until bedtime? 

Joe Biden on Ash Wednesday 2010.
Vice President Joe Biden wearing ashes

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate falls on Ash Wednesday, and Catholic candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich may appear on the debate stage with noticeable ash marks. Once you've put on ashes for Ash Wednesday, how long do you have to keep them on?

It’s up to you. Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, so Catholics can choose whether to go to church and where the ashes would be placed on their foreheads. They're also permitted to make their own decisions about when and how to remove the ashes. Many Catholics leave the mark on all day but wash it off before bedtime. Ashes also tend to flake off by themselves, or get rubbed away by absentminded forehead brushings. (Services can happen at any time of day, so it's at least conceivable that Santorum and Gingrich might receive the ashes after their early-evening debate in Arizona.)

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For Catholics, the ashes are considered a sign of penitence and mortality. They are rubbed in with a prayer that says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the United States, the dark smudge is supposed to take the shape of the cross, or a smudge vaguely resembling a cross depending on the precision of the person giving you ashes, but customs vary around the world. In Europe, ashes are sprinkled on the top of a person’s head. (One consistent tradition is for Ash Wednesday ashes to come from burning last year’s Palm Sunday fronds. The ashes are often combined with oil for sticking power, and sometimes bought from religious suppliers when churches are short on palm fronds.)

Despite its being an optional observance, Ash Wednesday Masses and services are among the busiest in the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. Several mainline Protestant churches including the Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran churches distribute ashes as well.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jesuit Father James Martin of America Magazine.

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