Noting that Catholics are easily identified on Ash Wednesday by the ashes they wear on their foreheads, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory challenged the faithful to “continue to be ambassadors for Christ long after the ashes are washed away.”

“It’s easy to tell Catholics on Ash Wednesday, but not so easy on the other days of Lent, unless we allow our spiritual identity and transformation to take the place of the ashes,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Celebrating the noonday Ash Wednesday liturgy Feb. 26 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle – his first since being named archbishop of Washington last year – Archbishop Gregory reminded his “beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord” that “penance, prayer and acts of charity must be the living signs of this holy time of the year.”

The faithful filled the cathedral, its side chapels and aisles to receive ashes on their foreheads and to be reminded, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” or to be admonished “to repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Archbishop Gregory noted that ashes on the forehead “are a unique Catholic branding” much like famous company logos, and “tells the entire world you are a Catholic.”

“Brands, emblems and trademarks are important to identify a product or a service. All use and recognize symbols,” Archbishop Gregory said, adding that the Catholic Church “has rich and deeply meaningful symbols called the sacraments.”

People pray during the Feb. 26 Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The Mass – one of seven offered that day at the cathedral – marked the start of Lent, the 40-day penitential period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. Lent this year continues until Good Friday, April 10. Easter this year will be celebrated on Sunday, April 12.

“The smudge on our foreheads reminds us and others that Lent has begun,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Penance, prayer and acts of charity allow our hearts to be changed, softened and renewed.”

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of total abstinence from meat, a law that binds all Catholics age 14 and older. They are also days of fasting, that is, people are limited to one single full meal on that day. The law of fasting binds all Catholics from their 18th year until up to and including their 59th birthday. All Fridays of Lent are days of total abstinence from meat, a law that binds all Catholics age 14 and older.

The Light Is On for You – the program where many parishes make available on Wednesday evenings of Lent the opportunity for the faithful to go to Confession – will again be conducted in the Archdiocese of Washington.

The remaining Wednesdays of Lent are March 4, 11, 18, 25, April 1 and 8. During the hours when Confessions are being heard, many parishes also offer Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

A website – https://thelightison.org/ – includes information about why go to Confession; how to make a proper Confession; and a “Confession Finder” where parishes and Confession times are included.

Many parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Washington also offer Stations of the Cross and other events to mark this penitential season.

Seven Masses were held throughout the day at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington to mark Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Traditionally, as a sign of penance, Catholics “give-up” a favorite treat or favorite activity during Lent. While that is a good practice, Lent is more than just a season of giving up things.

The spirit of sacrifice that prompts the faithful to “give up” something for Lent is meant to be more than just a pious or traditional practice. This sacrifice, more than just an act of omission, should lead the faithful to think more about others and reach out to those in need through almsgiving.

It is because of this that during Lent, many parishes, Catholic schools and religious education programs participate in Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl. Catholic Relief Services is the U.S. bishops’ overseas humanitarian outreach.

The program features a cardboard “rice bowl” that participants bring home and fill with coins during the Lenten season. The collected money is then presented to CRS. Seventy-five percent of the funds are used to support CRS programs around the world. The other 25 percent is returned to the diocese or archdiocese in which it was collected to be used for hunger and poverty alleviation programs on the local level. 

For more information on that program, visit https://www.crsricebowl.org/

Father John Hurley, a priest in residence at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, places ashes on a woman's forehead during an Ash Wednesday Mass there on Feb. 26. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In his Ash Wednesday homily, Archbishop Gregory called Lent “a campaign of Christian service” and prayed that the faithful would be “armed with the weapons of self-restraint.”

Praying to “our God of mercy and compassion,” the archbishop also prayed that “these days prepare us for the resurrection of your Son who is Lord forever and ever.”