The season of prayer and penance before Easter. Its purpose is to better prepare the faithful for the feast of the Resurrection, and dispose them for a more fruitful reception of the graces that Christ merited by his passion and death.
In the Latin Rite, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for forty days, besides Sundays, until Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday occurs on any day from February 4 to March 11, depending on the date of Easter. Originally the period of fasting in preparation for Easter did not, as a rule, exceed two or three days. But by the time of the Council of Nicaea (325) forty days were already customary. And ever since, this length of time has been associated with Christ's forty-day fast in the desert before beginning his public life.
According to the prescription of Pope Paul VI, in revising the Church's laws of fast and abstinence, "The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of Great Lent, according to the diversity of rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely" (Paenitemini, III, norm II).
Besides fast and abstinence on specified days, the whole Lenten season is to be penitential, with stress on prayer, reception of the sacraments, almsgiving, and the practice of charity. (Etym. Anglo-Saxon lengten, lencten, spring, Lent.)