Understanding Ash Wednesday Fasting and Abstinence Rules for Lent

Hope Bolinger

Hope Bolinger

Updated Feb 21, 2024
Understanding Ash Wednesday Fasting and Abstinence Rules for Lent

Although many churches recognize the season of Lent and may practice their own traditions during this period of time entering Good Friday and subsequently Easter, not all of them have a specific tradition regarding Ash Wednesday and Lent fasting. The idea of abstaining from certain worldly pleasures to focus on the meaning of the holiday, has valuable meaning regardless of denomination affiliation.

More prominent in denominations such as the Lutheran church and the Catholic church, we might see the commemoration of Ash Wednesday through a pastor or priest marking an ash cross on the foreheads of those in the congregation or parish, to symbolize repentance and reconciliation. 

Let’s look at what is involved during Ash Wednesday, what the fasting rules are during Lent, and how we can prepare our hearts for this Lent season.

 Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Uladzimir Zuyeu

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When Is Ash Wednesday and What Does it Signify?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent, a 40-day time of remembrance, fasting, and prayer, leads into the Holy Saturday or Maundy Thursday before Easter Sunday, depending on the tradition you ascribe to. 

Although Ash Wednesday is enriched with Christian symbolism, we don’t actually find an instance of this particular holiday in the Bible. The holiday didn’t have a biblical origin but owing to the Council of Nicea implementing a 40-day fasting period prior to Easter, many debated as to when that period would start.

In the fifth century, Pope Gregory transferred the beginning day of Lent from a Sunday to Ash Wednesday. 

Even though we don’t encounter an Ash Wednesday in the New Testament, we do see instances of people sprinkling ashes on themselves as a sign of repentance and sorrow (Esther 4:1, Daniel 9). 

Today, Ash Wednesday signifies the start of fasting, prayer, and reflection on our sin and the death of Jesus on the cross to atone for us.

Many Lenten traditions include a 40-day abstaining from certain foods. And some people have turned Lent into fasting from something that has taken their attention away from God (such as social media, gossiping, binge-watching TV, etc.). 

But, as we will discuss below, there are certain items Christians from more traditional denominations will abstain from. 

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What Are the Rules for Ash Wednesday and Lent Fasting?

Although some Christians will choose to make Lent a time to “fast” from something that they believe they have dedicated too much time to (television, social media, sugar, etc.), there are some more delineated rules to the Lent Fasting that more traditional denominations will follow. 

Lent is a time period set aside to prepare ourselves for arguably the most holy holiday in the Christian calendar. Just as we have Advent season to make us ready for Christmas, we have Lent before Easter.

The season of Lent also reminds us of when Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert. With the exclusion of Sundays (as Lent is technically 46 days, starting on Ash Wednesday), Christians will engage in a fast of sorts, to remember Jesus’ desert fast (Matthew 4). 

These rules can even differ amongst traditional denominations, but they usually are as follows, starting on Ash Wednesday:

- On Fridays, Christians will abstain from eating meat. You may have noticed how some restaurants may offer fish specials on Fridays during Lent season to accommodate this. This does include soups and gravies that have been made with meat products

- Depending on the tradition, abstaining from meat happens when someone reaches the age of 14-18 and ends around 60-70.

- As far as fasting goes, the ages of those who participate are typically between 18-59, with the exception of people who cannot participate due to health conditions such as the sick, pregnant, or those who work manual labor jobs.

- Christians fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, meaning they have one meal that day (without any meat), with no other solid food consumed until the next day.

Want a devotional for each day of Lent, with Scriptures that will bring joy to your heart? Get your free 40 Day Lent Devotional Guide to lead you in prayer and scripture reading through the Lenten Season! Download your copy HERE.

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Why Does Ash Wednesday Require Abstinence from Meat?

We may look at the rules and wonder: why abstain from meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday

There are actually multiple reasons for why Christians do this. First, we have to keep in mind that they abstain from meat on Fridays, to recognize the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross on Good Friday. 

Second, meat tended to have ties between celebrations and feasts during the first few centuries AD, so the somber nature of Lent season recognizes that it’s not a time to engage in revelry, but rather, engage in the gravity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for us. 

And third, with meat being a luxury item during that time frame, and even in many countries today, Lent helps us to avoid extravagant abuse of riches by recognizing that we are dust and to dust we will return. 

So why did they allow for fish to be eaten? The definition of meat the church is operating seems to be land animals

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Why Do Christians Wear a Cross of Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

There are a number of reasons why Christians will wear crosses of ashes on their forehead during Ash Wednesday.

First, and perhaps most obvious, it reminds us of what is to come on Good Friday. We remember the penalty Jesus paid for us on the cross, dying for our sins, so that we may have eternal life (2 Corinthians 5:15). 

Second, many churches will burn the fronds of the palms handed out on Palm Sunday during the former year. Palm Sunday remembers Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, right before the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11). 

During the span of that week, the inhabitants of Jerusalem went from declaring Jesus to be their liberator to shouting, “Crucify him,” when he did not fulfill their expectations for a messiah figure. 

Third, the ashes remind us that from dust we came and dust we will return (Genesis 3:19). We will all face death, but because of Christ, we do not have to face eternal death. We are reminded of our human nature and our need for a Savior. Often, when a priest or pastor places an ash cross on someone’s forehead, they will say, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

We are reminded that we need to focus on things above, rather than get bogged down in the worries of this world. 

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A Prayer as You Prepare for Ash Wednesday and Lent Fasting

Dear Heavenly Father,

As we enter this Lent season, we want to recognize the somber nature of this season. Lord, you gave everything for us, and we want to, even if for a short period of time, give up something to remember the sacrifice you made for us.

May we remember the period of time where you fasted in the desert, choosing to avoid whatever temptations the Devil set before you. In addition to our church-ordained Lent traditions, may we recognize what areas in our lives we have devoted more time to than necessary. May we observe what has taken us away from you, and give up such practices or unnecessary items to focus on you this season.

Reminds us that we are but dust and that we need to rely solely on your for our salvation. 

In Jesus’ holy and precious name, Amen.

At Easter, the Son of God took on the world’s sin and defeated the devil, death, and grave. How is it, then, that history’s most glorious moment is surrounded by fearful fishermen, despised tax collectors, marginalized women, feeble politicians, and traitorous friends?

In The Characters of Easter, you’ll become acquainted with the unlikely collection of ordinary people who witnessed the miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection. This FREE podcast provides a fresh approach to the Lenten season and can be used as a devotional or study for both individuals and groups. 

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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, book editor for hire, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids. Check out her editing profile at Reedsy.com to find out about hiring her for your next book project.

Originally published Wednesday, 22 February 2023.