What is Lent all about?
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.
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