Lent Is a 40 day Christian festival beginning Ash Wednesday and concluding on Easter (Sundays are not counted)
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 catechumens who were to be baptized on the Saturday before Easter. The 40 day fast was said by Athanasius in 339 AD to be celebrated the world over. The 40 day fast of Jesus in the wilderness was responsible for the number 40 being chosen.
The purpose of this extended fast was to practice self-denial and humility. This was to prepare oneself for receiving God's grace and forgiveness in baptism, given on Easter Saturday or Easter Sunday.
The liturgical color for Lent is purple, the color of repentance and sorrow for sin.
Lent prepares us for the observance of Jesus Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection for us. It is a season of repentance and sorrow for sin. Lent is a time of self-examination in light of the Ten Commandments; it is a time of giving up of sinful behavior, a time of personal housecleaning. It is a time of commitment to the new life of Christ begun in baptism. It is a time of disciplined study of Scripture and a time of growing in faith.
In recent years Lent has become a time to remember our baptisms. It is a time to reflect on the impact of baptism on our lives, and to ask ourselves how we are doing. Most of all, it is a time of renewal and new beginnings, as we through faith apply the complete forgiveness won by Christ's death to our lives. Lent heightens our awareness that we desperately need Jesus Christ.
As someone has said: "Lent is the Church's springtime. Out of the darkness of sin's winter emerges a people the Church--reborn through baptism into their Lord's death and resurrection from the grave."
Lent is an opportunity not an obligation. It is not commanded by our Lord, nor is it even mentioned in the Bible. Those Christians who observe it do so because they find it a helpful opportunity for repentance and renewal, for the strengthening of their faith. Christians are free to observe or not observe Lent.
The beginning of what we call "Ash Wednesday," is difficult to date with certainty, though it probably began around 600 A.D.
Ashes are applied to the forehead of Christians in the sign of the cross (throughout the Middle Ages ashes were sprinkled on the head) as a symbol of humility and repentance. The ashes are a reminder that we are "dust and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). Thus, they are a reminder of our mortality cursed as it is by sin. Moreover, the ashes remind us of our limits, of what we are, and how greatly we need God's mercy in Christ.