So named from the ashing ceremony that takes place during Mass. The ashes come from burning of last year's palm crosses. As the priest makes the sign of the cross on the forehead he reminds us of our mortality by announcing "dust thou art and dust shalt thou return".
This most solemn fast day ushers in our preparation (the Sundays during Lent are excluded) for the Triduum and Easter. If we keep Ash Wednesday as it should be kept as a day of fasting, abstinence and prayer, it will help us immensely to keep a good Lent. Fasting means having only one main meal and no snacking and abstaining means not eating meat. Ideally we should try to fast until our meal in the evening. For some because of the nature of his/her work, age or medical problem(s) need to have breakfast. However we all should be able to fast in some degree on this day. Undoubtedly most of us eat and drink too much. Rather than eating when we are indeed hungry, when our body needs food, and drinking when we are thirsty, we usually eat or drink for some kind of pleasure. Lent is a superb time to subdue our eating and drinking indulgences and learn to monitor our body respectfully and healthfully. It is after all the temple of the living Spirit. By fasting it also enables us to share something of the plight of millions of our brethren around the world who are dying from hunger and who would gladly eat the crusts we cut off our bread and discard. By fasting we also learn not to be wasteful.
Fasting also helps to mortify the flesh. "We must deny our own wills, our appetites of gluttony and drunkenness, ... for the purchase of temperance." It is therefore a means whereby "the will of man may humbly obey God, and absolutely rule its inferior faculities." Taylor insists that mortification is essential if we want to grow spiritually, for without it, "we neither can love to pray, nor can God love to hear us."
However fasting is not simply a matter of exercising self discipline and showing how strong willed we can be. It in fact has two parts: the outward, pertaining to our body, and the inward in the heart and mind. Thus like abstinence the discipline we impose on ourselves is an act of love for Him in thanksgiving for the many blessings He has given us through His passion, and to help us to grow in holiness and in imitation of Christ Himself. That means that although we must live in this world, we always seek that other country. "Fasting is one of the nails of the cross to which the flesh is fastened, that it rise not, [and] lust not against the spirit." When it is accompanied with prayer it is a powerful spiritual exercise.
By fasting, it means also we try to practise the example of our Lord. Not only do we have His commendation for it by His forty days in the wilderness, but also we have His example when He withdrew from the crowds to a lonely place to pray and fast. Furthermore we have his definite teaching that He expects us to fast. Andrewes expresses this so aptly when he responds to the question, must we fast? "Indeed we must, or get us a new Epistle for the day, and a new Gospel too", as both commanded fasting. "Christ cannot say to us, When you fast, if we fast not at all." Therefore When you fast, should be, "now we fast, now we are at it this day".
These days, it has become fashionable to fast in order to be slim and healthy, but it has always been fashionable in the Church to deny the body food and drink in order to have a healthy soul. Let this be fashionable for us this Lent!
My dear Saviour who endured the agonies of dying on a cross after having been scourged and beaten, let me gladly endure some bodily discomforts this Lent for You through my fasting. May it assist me to enter into, and experience some of the physical pain You suffered so that on Good Friday I shall not be a mere spectator looking on at Golgotha, but a partaker trying to share with You some of that agony as You hang there. May it also fill me with compassion and giving help to my starving brethren throughout the world. Amen.
'Return to me with all your heart' and prove that your repentance is genuine by fasting and weeping and mourning. Fast now so that you may feast hereafter; weep now and you will laugh hereafter. Present mourning will give way to future joy. ... I bid you not to tear your garments but rather to 'rend your hearts' which are laden with sin and which like wine-skins will burst of their own accord unless they are cut open. When you have done this, return to the Lord your God, from whom you had been alienated by your sins. Never despair of his mercy, no matter how great your sins, for is great mercy can take away great sins. -
From Jerome's commentary on Joel for the lesson for Ash Wednesday (Joel 2.12)
A DAY OF FASTING
Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, then hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God's ear to yourself. ...
Offer your soul to God. make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself you are never without the means of giving.