The word Lent comes from an Old English word for spring (“lengthen,” the time of the year when the days grow longer). For the last 1700 years, the Church has set aside the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter as a time of special preparation. We journey with the Lord to the cross and tomb, preparing for the proclamation of Easter. It is a time of repentance and renewal.
The Church speaks of 40 days of Lent because we do not count the Sundays, which retained their significance as “little Easters” and serve as “islands of refreshment” during the course of the season. The 40 days are reminiscent of several biblical events: Jesus’ 40 day fast at the beginning of his ministry, Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai at the giving of the Law, Elijah’s fast on his way to the mountain of God.
During Lent, our rejoicing is muted as we remember our Lord’s suffering and death. But it is with a purpose: we know that the Lord who died took up his life again on Easter Sunday morning. The color of the season is purple. Purple is the ancient color of royalty. We have this kind of king: he wore a crown of thorns, and carried a cross for us. Thanks be to God!
The first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday. The ancient practice of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful gives Ash Wednesday its name. The ashes remind us of our mortality and give a strong call to repentance as they recall words spoken during a Christian burial: “…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” The ashes are made from the burning of the palm branches used on Palm Sunday the previous year. The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusively Roman Catholic practice and today is observed widely by Christians of many traditions.