The beginning of Lent is generally known in English as Ash Wednesday (which is a good translation of its Latin name: feria quarta in cineres). It takes its name from the custom of putting ashes on the heads of the faithful.
Ashes. Putting ashes on one’s head or sitting or lying in them (often accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth) was a customary way of expressing grief recorded in the Old Testament. See, for example, 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Jonah 3:6.
Lent began as a time for catechumens’ immediate preparation for baptism at Easter. Soon it also became a time of penitential preparation for the reconciliation of notorious sinners with the Church, which would also take place at Easter. The bishop would put ashes on the heads of the penitents as they began this season.
Over the course of centuries the public reconciliation of penitents morphed into the private reconciliation of sinners. Concurrently, the public penance of sinners in preparation for reconciliation at Easter became the preparation of all (who are all sinners) for Easter; and the ashes of the penitents became available for all as a sign of sorrow for sin.
It is worth noting that with this history and significance of the ashes, wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday does not violate Jesus’ precept in Matthew 6:16-18. The ashes do not say we are fasting; they say we are repentant sinners.
Scriptures. The readings for today’s Mass approach Lent under different aspects. The first reading — Joel 2:12-18 — has a community aspect to it. The Lord calls for the wayward community to engage in a collective act of penance: fasting and assembling (with no exceptions) to pray for mercy. God is sure to be merciful to the people that turns to him in that way. The psalm refrain, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned,” continues the community vision, but the actual verses — Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17 — are the words of an individual penitent. We acknowledge that our personal guilt is an element of the community’s.
The second reading — 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 — looks not at sin itself but at reconciliation with God. Lent is a day of salvation, a time of grace, when we can come to participate in Christ’s divine righteousness because he has taken on our sin, removing the obstacle between us and God.
Finally, in the gospel — Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 — Jesus warns us against the hypocrisy of doing good things just for the sake of winning admiration from others. (The omitted verses are the ones where he gives the Our Father as the model of prayer.) Note that he doesn’t say “If you give alms … pray … fast,” but “When you give alms, pray, fast.” These three things must be part of every Christian’s life, and not just for Lent; but the Church considers them the primary disciplines of Lent. In other words, we are to do them more intensively and more intentionally during Lent. We should give alms more. This can include acts of kindness and supplying the needs of others even beyond things of monetary; we can help by giving of our time and our talents. We should deepen our life of prayer, adding maybe a few minutes of prayer or Bible reading to our daily routine. Fasting is what creates the idea of “giving something up for Lent.” It has value in reasserting that we are in charge of our appetites; it says that we don’t absolutely need these things; it says God is more important than these things which we enjoy; and what we save by not buying the things we give up can and should become part of our almsgiving — the fast isn’t so we can spend on ourselves in some other way.