Lent was derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning spring. In France the season is called Careme, and in
Italy it is Quarestima, both derived from the Latin Quadragesima.
Lent in the Western Churches was originally a period of forty days of fasting and penitence, readying the Christian soul for the great feast on the ensuing Easter Sunday.This is held as a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection.
The Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and goes for forty days excluding the Sundays. Because Sundays are always the joyful celebration of the Resurrection. It ends on the Good Friday. However, Lent is a forty two day period in Eastern Churches and begins on the Monday preceding the Easter by forty two days . This makes it clear that they don't have Ash Wednesday. With the Easter being a movable feast, Lent begins in different years on different days in either February or March.
Certainly the number forty has long had a symbolic importance in religion.
Moses and Elias spent forty days in the wilderness; the Jews wandered
forty years searching for the Promised Land; Jonah gave the city of
Nineveh forty days' grace in which to repent.
And Jesus retreated into the wilderness and fasted for forty days to prepare for his ministry. It was for Him a time of contemplation, reflection, and preparation. So by observing Lent, most Christians join Jesus on His retreat.
The Lenten period of forty days owes its origin to the Latin word Quadragesima, originally signifying forty hours. This referred to forty hours of complete fasting which preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church. The main ceremony was the baptizing of the initiates on Easter Eve, and the fast was a preparation to receive this sacrament. Later, the period from Good Friday until Easter Day was extended to six days, to correspond with the six weeks of training, necessary to instruct the converts who were to be baptized.
A strict schedule was adhered to in the teaching of the converts. In Jerusalem near the end of the fourth century, classes were held throughout seven weeks of Lent for three hours each day.
With the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of Rome in the 4th century, its character was endangered by the great influx of new members. To combat the hazard, the Lenten fast and practices of self renunciation were required of all Christians. The less zealous of the converts were thus brought more securely into the Christian fold.
Sometimes before the year 330 the duration of Lent had been fixed at forty days in Egypt, to correspond to Christ's forty days in the desert. It was evident quite early that a six-week Lent contained only thirty-six days - since Sunday is never a fast day. Gradually four more days were added to the beginning of Lent became Known as Ash Wednesday. The first evidence of this increase is in the Gelasian Sacramentary of the early eighth century.
In time the emphasis of the season turned from preparation for baptism to
more penitential aspects of penance. The sorrows and sufferings of Christ
were shared by the self-denying Christian. Persons guilty of notorious
sins spent the time performing public penances. Only at the end of Lent
were they publicly reconciled with the Church. During the Middle Ages the
sinners were accepted back in an elaborate ceremony.
Then penance came to be associated during this period for common people as well. And Lent became the way of penance. It is good for us to undertake acts of penance in sorrow for our sins, our failure to acknowledge and to love God in Himself, in others, in ourselves. The traditional forms of penance, fast and abstinence, are to be observed according to Church law. The habit of more personal forms of penance is certainly to be encouraged. Not only is penance appropriate as an expression of sorrow for sin, but it also helps us to be less attached to the things of this world. Penance helps us to put things in proper perspective.
The way of Lent is also the way of good works, the way of loving service of others. In his Lenten message for this year, the Holy Father invites us to be particularly attentive to the needs of the homeless.