Here is information regarding Lent and its emphasis on penitential practices evolving slowly over the centuries.
During Early Christianity...
Baptism and penance were the key Lenten themes. During Lent, candidates prepared for Easter Baptism and persons did public penance for serious sins.
Later, the emphasis gradually shifted to private penance. Lent became a time of forgiveness and reconciliation for those who acknowledged their sinfulness.
During the Middle Ages...
Strict 40-day fasts (abstinence from meat and other foods) and not attending festivities were obligatory for Christians. Gradually, these practices became less rigid and demanding. An example: Marking the head with ashes began during the papacy of Gregory the Great (6th century A.D.) when public penitents came barefoot to church to perform penance for wrongdoing. In recognition that no one is free from sin and wishing to stand with penitents, friends and relatives began to come along. Soon ashes were given to the entire gathered assembly. The practice continues today and is widely practiced in many faith groups.
The emphasis has shifted from long periods of fasting to prayer, meditation, and reflection on the meaning of Easter. Lent is seen as a time of practicing extraordinary acts of devotion as one seeks to grow more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, rather than giving up something for Lent. Lent remains important as a time of reflection on ones' life and preparation for Easter.
Length of Lent...
Lent began as a three-day period of fasting and prayer prior to Easter, remembering Gethsemane, the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, Thursday through Saturday. Later it was expanded to Holy week as Christians observed fasting and prayer for seven days prior to Easter. Then because of the importance of 40 days in religious history, Lent became a period of days. Six days a week for 6 weeks excluding Sundays. Plus four days including Ash Wednesday for the Beginning of Lent.
All of this was based on the following:
Moses fasted and prayed for 40 days during which time God gave him the 10 commandments as found in Exodus 34.
Elijah fled for his life through the wilderness as he fasted 40 days until he came to Mt. Horeb. Then God appeared and reminded him of his call to be faithful in I Kings 19.
Jesus withdrew to the desert for 40 days after his baptism where he fasted and prayed before beginning his public ministry.
Fasting and prayer have been important observances since Biblical times. They have often preceded great religious revelations or events. When a church is making some special emphasis or financial drive for a cause, members are often invited to join in a special time of fasting and prayer.
So, we intentionally join in worship, classes, and Bible study during Lent to reflect on our relationship with God and each other as we confess our sins and claim God's grace and love anew in our lives.
In another email, please find a meditation for Ash Wednesday. This is shared since we are unable to gather for worship and have the ashes signed on our foreheads.