The season of Lent has been celebrated in the Christian church from the earliest of times. Following Hebrews 9 and 10 the Jewish Atonement Feast was taken over by the early church, and by the fourth century a period of forty days was established for prayer and fasting. It was a time to concentrate on repentance, and so it became the period most used to prepare converts for baptism. Interestingly, the stress upon prayer and fasting in the church of the first century is seen in a number of textual variants which link "prayer" with "fasting", cf. Matt.17:21, Mk.9:29, Acts.10:30, 1Cor.7:5.
Prayer and fasting are associated together in the Old Testament, Ex.34:28, Deut.9:9, Sam.12:16-23, and are regulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt.6, and practised by the apostles and the early church, Acts.13:2-3, 14:23, 2Cor.6:5,11:27. The benefit of fasting seems to lie in two areas. It quietens the mind and body and therefore, aids our listening to God. It detaches us from material pleasures and thus weakens our dependence upon them. Yet, it must always be practised sensibly.
The prime purpose of Lent, and particularly Ash Wednesday, is to remind us of our state of loss in the sight of God. "Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you will return", Gen.3:19. We are to remind ourselves that we are sinners facing judgement. Once reminded of that truth, we can reaffirm our faith in Christ. We enact our repentance and faith in Christ, for only in him can we stand secure, Mk.1:15.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, although the three pre-Lent Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima are still celebrated in some liturgical churches.
In some churches on Ash Wednesday, the members bring their palm crosses from Palm Sunday, these are burnt and the ash is marked on the forehead. This ancient Christian practice is called "ashing".
Lent is not so much a time of denial as a time of reflection. We are children of this age and face the ultimate end of all flesh. We are of dust. Yet in Christ we transcend the present moment and share in eternity. Let us then "pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, Take hold of eternal life", 1Tim.6:11-12.