Beginning in the early apostolic times, Christians observed a season of penitence, reflection, and fasting in preparation for the celebration of Easter and the Good News of resurrection. Congregants meeting in house/churches used the period as a season of preparation for candidates for baptism and as a time of penance for sinning. The church in the Western tradition eventually identified the beginning of this season on a Wednesday forty days prior to Easter Sunday (choosing forty days symbolically as a reminder of Christ’s forty days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness prior to the onset of his ministry).
That first Wednesday each year soon was called “Ash Wednesday,” mainly from a practice of drawing a cross with ashes on the forehead of the believer, at the same time that God’s words about the destiny of each human being were repeated as a reminder of the origins and the limitations of our earthly existence: (Remember) “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19b).
The Eastern Church also adopted this period of personal reflection and penance, counting eight weeks prior to Easter as its season of preparation. During this season, known today as the season of “Lent,” the church in “joy and sorrow, proclaims, remembers, and responds to the atoning death of Jesus Christ” (The Book of Common Worship). The word lent originates from the Middle English word for “spring,” lenten, the season in the northern hemisphere in which this sacred and somber time is observed. Since Sunday is a day of worship and celebration, the forty days of penance exclude Sundays on its count toward Easter, and the period culminates in Holy Week, including Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, God Friday, and Easter Sunday.
Believers in the evangelical tradition, including Baptists, can use the season not only for fasting and refraining from specific pleasures (“giving up something for Lent”), but as an opportunity for challenging adopted prejudices and performing deeds of care anonymously.