Lent is the period of penance that precedes the celebration of the Easter mysteries. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “spring.” Lent lasts forty days but it is fairly difficult to come up with exactly forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday and in the catholic tradition ends on Holy Thursday, discounting Sundays which are previews of Easter.
In Scripture the number 40 symbolizes completeness. Noah stayed in the ark 40 days. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Elijah the prophet stayed 40 days on Mount Horeb. Jonah gave the city of Nineveh 40 days to repent. It is the symbol rather than the count that is important.
The primary reference of the 40 day fast for Christians is the time Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism. Here he was tempted by Satan.
The time of trial is part of the hero myth. First he receives his calling in some miraculous act such as Jesus’ baptism when the heavens open. But he must test that vocation to discover just what his call means.
Today Lent centers primarily around the catechumens: those preparing for baptism at Easter. For them too Lent is a time of testing and on the 3-5th Sundays we pray the Scrutinies - prayers that help them let go of the “world” and embrace the Kingdom of God.
During Lent the rest of us join in their journey. Everyone renews their baptismal promises at Easter. In the old days Lent was the final period of penance for public sinners.
Some of us are old enough to remember Lent as a time of penance and fasting. We fasted the weekdays of Lent and we undertook some penance such as giving up candy. The church still encourages us to fast. As for penance we might renew our observance of Lent by looking at more spiritual practices.