Lent is a Christian observance beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Easter Sunday.
The 40 days of Lent are a reminder of the time Jesus spent in the desert wilderness fasting, praying, overcoming temptation and affirming God after he was baptized by John the Baptist.
The word "Lent" comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word lengten, which means "springtime," named so for the time of the year in which it occurs.
What we now call Lent was originally a period of fasting and study for new Christians who were to be baptized on the Saturday before Easter.
New Christians emulated Jesus to practice self-denial and humility and to prepare for receiving God's grace and forgiveness in baptism.
As time passed, early Christians who felt a need for spiritual renewal began joining newcomers in the observance of the period of fasting and self-denial. Lent, then, arose from these early practices of the church and was endorsed as an observance after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
Since about 600 A.D., the church has marked the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday by applying ashes to the foreheads of Christians in the sign of the cross as a symbol of humility and repentance. The ashes are a reminder of our mortality, Christ's suffering on the cross and how greatly we are in need of God's mercy.
The ashes are applied with the words: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return." Alternately, these words are said: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."
The ashes for Ash Wednesday are often made from palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday that are sprinkled with water or olive oil.
Lent can be viewed today as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and tossing things which hinder our relationship with God. The purpose of Lent is spiritual growth.
Historically, fasting, almsgiving, prayer and reading the scriptures or other spiritual works have been associated with Lent. Some Christians give up vices or specific pleasures during Lent as a spiritual discipline.
Today, in Western churches, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are designated as fast days. Members of Eastern churches still fast throughout Lent, however.
Some churches ignore Lent. Some believe it places too much emphasis on sin, guilt and repentance, and they would prefer to do away with that. Some churches don't observe Lent because it is a "tradition" of the Church, not explicitly directed in the Bible.
For others, the idea of Lent as an emulation of Christ's 40 days in the wilderness is a Bible-based tradition.
Lenten observance can be difficult. It requires that we examine material and spiritual excesses in our lives. It demands directing our bodies, minds and spirits to spiritual purposes for almost six weeks. It is contrary to our culture's idea that everything must be happy, easy, and have mass popular appeal. The reality is that Jesus' life was full of poverty, simplicity, and sacrifice, ideals we strive for our entire lives, and have an opportunity to focus on during Lent.