What is Lent?:
In the Christian liturgical calendar, Lent is the penitential period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Traditional Christians observances of Lent include fasting and penitence, both in preparation for Easter and as a way of spiritually joining Jesus with the fasting and meditation he did in the wilderness. For early Christians and for Eastern Orthodox Christians today the rules of fasting are strict: just one meal a day, in the evening, and no meat, fish, eggs, or butter is permitted.
Origins of Lent:
The name lent is a Germanic word originally used to refer to the spring season generally. Over time, it replaced the Latin quadragesima, which means forty days. Lent lasts forty days because, according to biblical accounts, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days of fasting, meditation and reflection before beginning his ministry. In Western Christendom Lent begins on Ash Wednesday; for Eastern Orthodox Churches, it is called Great Lent and begins on Clean Monday.
Lent & Ash Wednesday:
Where do the ashes come in for Ash Wednesday? It was traditional in ancient times for people engaged in special times of fasting, prayer, repentance, or remorse by rubbing ashes on their forehead as an outward symbol of what they are experiencing internally. This custom entered Christianity through Judaism, and Christians today may ashes on their foreheads to mark the beginning of Lent. Ideally, one should use ashes from the burning of palm fronds from the previous years Easter celebrations.
Lent & Fasting Today:
In Western Christendom today, the strictest fasting rules were eliminated in the Roman Catholic Church in 1966. Only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are required to be strict fasting days for Roman Catholics. Penance, however, is still observed and marked by alms giving, devoting time to prayer and Bible reading, and other forms of religious study. During the early days of the church, this period was also on in which those who wanted to become Christians prepared for their baptismal rites.
Lent & Mardi Gras (Carnival):
In many places around the world, the last day before Lent (known variously as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, or Fasching) is celebrated as a last fling before the solemn days of Lent. Carnival is a common name because, for centuries, people were expected to fast by abstaining from meat during Lent (just as they were expected to abstain from meat every Friday), and the term carnivale is Latin for farewell to meat.
Days of Lent:
Calculating the days of Lent varies between Western (Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, eastern-rite churches affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church) churches. In Western churches, Sundays are skipped when counting because Sundays commemorate Jesus supposed resurrection. In 2006, Lent in the West begins March 1st and ends April 8th. In the Catholic Church, the official end of Lent occurs on Holy Thursday with the mass of the Lords Supper.
Lent in the Orthodox Church:
In Orthodox churches, this penitential period is known as the Great Lent and Sundays are not skipped when counting. So, Lent begins on what is known as Clean Monday, the seventh Monday before Easter, and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday (using the eastern date for Easter, which also differs from the West). Although Sundays are not commemorated by skipping them, the fasting is relaxed a bit during the weekends.