Since Anglo-Saxon times we have used the lovely word Lent (meaning springtime) as a translation of the Latin Quadragesima (a reference to the forty days which make up the season of Lent). Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are traditionally associated with this season and show clearly the Jewish origins of the Church. They are the means by which we atone for sin.
Historically, probably the most notable feature of this period is the Lenten fast which is a preparation for Easter. Scholars continue to debate its origins, although the length of forty days is presumably drawn from the example of Moses, Elijah and Jesus himself. There may also be a reference to Jesus' forty hours lying in the tomb. The Early Church kept the fast in many different ways. For example, in sixth century Rome, Lent lasted six weeks but, according to the Church historian Socrates, there were only three weeks of actual fasting. In Alexandria, Lent also lasted six weeks, but there was only one week of fasting (very severe fasting, it is true) during Holy Week.
By the time of Gregory the Great (590-604), there was some complicated number symbolism becoming associated with Lent, Gregory, for example, writing of the thirty-six days of fasting (Sundays were never fast-days) as being a tithe of the year offered to God. Later the importance of completing forty days of fasting meant that some extra days had to be added to the customary six weeks; so that the Roman custom is now to begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent. The Church of Milan held out against this innovation and until recently always marked Lent as beginning on the first Sunday of Lent.
As you might expect, there has been an equally wide divergence in the nature of the fast. Most commonly, the rule was to have only one meal a day, in the evening, and to abstain from luxuries such as meat and wine. St Gregory the Great, writing to St Augustine in England, tells him to abstain not just from meat and wine but also from eggs and dairy produce. This became the common practice. Remnants of the custom are found today in our practice of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before Lent begins, and eggs at Easter, when it ends. Of course, there were mitigations and exceptions were granted to those who were sick or elderly. In time these spread more generally.The two most frequent were the allowance of two snacks, known as collations, in addition to the daily meal. The name comes from the practice of allowing in monasteries an evening drink at the time that the Collationes or Conferences of Cassian were read.
On Maundy Thursday evening began the Paschal fast, usually of greater severity than the Lenten fast. Often it was limited to dry bread and vegetables so that when Easter finally came it was celebrated with great relish. Today the Church continues to encourage fasting and abstinence during Lent but only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are "statutory" fast days. The young and the elderly are not obliged to fast even on these two days.
On Ash Wednesday the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration are burnt and the ashes sprinkled on the heads or foreheads of churchgoers with the reminder, "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." We begin Lent by recalling our creatureliness, something Adam and Eve forgot and which led them into sin. We may not wear biblical sackcloth, but at least we wear ashes as a sign of our penitence. We also mark the day by fasting and abstinence: they are a mark of our sorrow for sin and desire to return to the Lord who is ever ready to forgive and welcome us back.