There are not many sacraments and activities within the Catholic church that are open to non-Catholics. For some sacraments like communion, it’s sacrilege to participate as a non-Catholic. But can non Catholics take ashes on Ash Wednesday?
Some of the few activities where the Catholic Church welcomes everyone include attending mass, baptism and Ash Wednesday. If you’d like to partake in this day of penance, prayer and fasting, you can do so even if you are non-Catholic.
Even non-Christians can take ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is not one of the seven sacraments, hence the flexibility on admitting non-Catholics. If it were one of the sacraments, you’d have to through the first sacrament (Baptism), before you could receive ashes.
Origins Of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is called so because of the ashes placed on the foreheads of participants, typically in the form of a cross. These ashes come from the burning of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Ashes represent grief because you’ve sinned. They also remind us of our humble origins from dust. That’s why the two statements spoken by the Priest during Ash Wednesday are:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Repent and believe in the Gospel.
The idea of using ashes to indicate penance goes all the way back to the Old Testament where famous figures dressed in sackcloth and poured ashes on themselves to seek God’s forgiveness.
For example, in Daniel Chapter 9:
Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. 4 And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made confession…
In the book of Esther, Mordecai did the same thing in deep mourning upon news that all Jews would be killed.
When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.
Modern Ash Wednesday
The physical show of grief, mourning and repentance has carried on to the modern Church. But today, instead of people randomly donning a sack and pouring ash down their head, there’s a single day when anyone can receive ash in a sign of grief and penance.
Ash Wednesday is not just important for what it stands for; it also indicates the start of Lent, a period that carries on with the penance and forgiveness theme.
As I mentioned, everyone, including non-Catholics, can get ashes during Ash Wednesday. You do not need to be baptized or even a Christian.
So if there’s an Ash Wednesday celebration at your local Catholic church or in your school, feel free to attend. You won’t be committing any sacrilege.
Some parishes have gone further with this idea of welcoming everyone to Ash Wednesday. They have something called ‘Ashes to Go’.
Priests go to public places such as streets, parks and rail stations and give ashes to anyone who is willing. If you are walking or driving and come across a priest distributing ashes, you are free to receive them regardless of the status of your faith.
The most important thing is to understand the meaning behind the ashes: repentance and seeking forgiveness. They also emphasize human mortality, remind us we came from dust and that’s where we (our bodies) are headed.
If you are looking for more answers, read our article on Catholics and St. Patricks day.