In short it is about repentance, forgiveness and baptism. It is one of the most ancient Christian observances recognizing the need to prepare for Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, the greatest of Christian feasts.
In 325 the Council of Nicea first proposed a 40 day preparation period for Easter. The number 40 has special religious significance for Christians: Moses spent 40 days fasting on Mt. Sinai waiting on God, Elijah walked 40 days to the Mountain of the Lord and most importantly Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days in the desert before he began his ministry.
As is the case with all Christian observances, Lent has changed over time until it took its present form in the Western Church of the 40 days prior to Easter. Originally Lent began on quadragesima (fortieth day) Sunday, but Sundays being feasts were not counted, so in the sixth century Pope St. Gregory the Great moved the first day of Lent to the previous Wednesday to make it a full 40 days.
The first liturgy for Ash Wednesday appeared in the tenth century and in the 11th century Pope Urban II called for the distribution of ashes on that day. Although Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, many Catholics treat it as one and would not think of missing being marked with ashes on the forehead. Originally, ashes were sprinkled on men’s heads and only women received them on the forehead, but the sprinkling for men soon gave way to the forehead. Ashes symbolize the first theme of Lent, repentance. They are the traditional symbol of repentance in the Old and New Testaments.
Forgiveness is the second theme. It is a time to forgive and be forgiven, to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness and be reconciled to him, and unburden ourselves from anger, hurt and resentment by offering the same forgiveness to others. One of the names for the last day before Lent begins is Shrove Tuesday. Shrove is a form of the English word Shrive, which means seeking absolution for your sins in confession in preparation for Lent.
Baptism is the last theme. In Baptism water becomes the symbol of death and the symbol of life. Paul tells us in Romans six that in the waters of Baptism we die with Christ so that we may rise with him to new life. Lent is the traditional final preparation for catechumens preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil when they will rise with him to new life.
It is also the time for all to prepare themselves for the renewal of their Baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil.
In his Lenten Message, Pope Benedict XVI writes: “In order to undertake more seriously our journey towards Easter and prepare ourselves to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord – the most joyous and solemn feast of the entire liturgical year – what could be more appropriate than allowing ourselves to be guided by the Word of God? For this reason, the Church, in the Gospel texts of the Sundays of Lent, leads us to a particularly intense encounter with the Lord, calling us to retrace the steps of Christian initiation: for catechumens, in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of rebirth; for the baptized, in light of the new and decisive steps to be taken in the sequela Christi and a fuller giving of oneself to him.”
The culmination of Lent is the Triduum, the final three days from Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil. As we prepare for our journey to Easter, led by God’s Holy Word, let us do so in a spirit of repentance and forgiveness as we prepare to renew our Baptismal commitment and rejoice in the triumph of Jesus’ Resurrection.