Believe it or not, the word “Lent” isn’t a particularly religious word. “Lent” simply means “the spring season.” And the Lenten season lasts for forty days. Throughout the Holy Scriptures, forty days was a time of testing or discipline. Noah and his family were in the ark when it rained for forty days and nights as God cleansed the world of sin. The Israelites mourned the passing of Joseph for forty days. Israel ate manna for forty years in the desert. Moses retreated with the Lord for forty days and nights. The prophet Jonah reluctantly told the people of Nineveh that they had forty days of repentance before the judgment. Our Lord Jesus was led into the desert for forty days of temptation. Likewise, He was on the earth for forty days after His resurrection as He manifested Himself to his disciples.
The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday and end on Holy Saturday, the day before our highest and holiest day of the year, which is Easter or Resurrection Sunday. Now, there are more than forty days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. There are forty-six days to be exact. But six of those days are Sundays and the church relaxes its observance of Lent on each Sunday. Sunday is no time for fasting and solemn living. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Every Sunday is an Easter.
The Lenten season began as a period of days to catechize new converts. In preparing for their baptism, new converts learned the basics of faith in Jesus and fasted during this time to prepare themselves for a life of dying to their self and living to Christ. The Didache, an early church writing possibly from the later part of the first century, encouraged all converts as well as those involved in their baptizing and instruction to a time of fasting.
“Giving public instruction on all these points…before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.” (Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Time.)
Those already baptized adopted as their spiritual discipline a similar spiritual pilgrimage. Later, the pilgrimage became forty days long and led to reaffirmation of the baptismal vows of the entire community. Most disciples were baptized on Easter Sunday, a practice that much of the church observes to this day. Therefore, the forty days of Lent were positioned in the calendar before Easter in anticipation of these new believers beginning their new life in Jesus. It is the same for us now, in our time, and that is why we celebrate the season of Lent to this day.