Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is a movable forty day fast which correlates to the preeminent season of Easter, the fifty day feast.
So, why the ashes and why the fasting? The ashes are a sign of mourning and repentance. We humans are destined to death. Everything in our short life here on earth is leading to the inevitable time when our bodies give out. No matter how well we eat, how much we exercise or meditate, we are dying. Our 21st century western society would have us deny this fact. Simply observing various health campaigns, the emphasis on youth culture, the prevalence of plastic surgery and anti aging creams and lotions, and the relegation of the elderly into institutions, it becomes clear that ours is a society in deep denial and avoidance of this very fact.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, or our finiteness and of what has lead us to this inevitable destination. It places in the forefront, that it is sin which leads to death and is a call to repentance and in fact to new life. As the ashes are placed on our foreheads, we will be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is to shake us out of our daydream into reality. We wear the ashes as a reminder of our complicity with death and a sign of our repentance for that complicity. Job 42:3-6, Jeremiah 6:26, Daniel 9:3
The fasting during Lent reminds us of where our true desire lies and reorients our thoughts to where our true hunger is fulfilled, in God. To reorient is to repent, to accept God's forgiveness and to accept the Christ life that now lives within us.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble - because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.We all are dying. The voluntary death to self leads to life. The grasping of life leads to death. Ash Wednesday and Lent makes us more aware of this choice and aids in orienting our lives to the only one who can give life.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:25