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Lent
 leads us to Easter

The Christian Church has observed the weeks before Easter as a time of penitence and spiritual self-examination. Ash Wednesday is an appropriate way to begin the 40 days of Lent.  The number 40 is significant. It is a common number in the Bible, especially related to wandering, preparation, or temptation.  Christ was in the tomb 40 hours. He was tempted in the wilderness 40 days by Satan. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years. Elijah's journey to Mt. Horeb took 40 days. And of course, during the great flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. 
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday but leads us to Easter.
Easter proclaims that through Christ, God resurrects us from our dust and ashes, makes us new creatures, and brings life out of death.
Local customs varied widely. In Rome, the period of Lent lasted 3 weeks. In northern Africa, it was 6 weeks. In Jerusalem, 8 weeks. By the year 400, the church had pretty much decided on the season of Lent lasting 40 days ... but the way of counting those days was quite unusual. Sundays were not counted, since each Sunday was an Easter celebration. So the season of Lent developed into 40 days, not counting Sundays, before Easter. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, Holy Saturday is the last day.
Lental observance includes a period of 40 days of reflection, devotion, and instruction. Ashes were placed on the foreheads of Christians as a reminder that we were sinful and that the result of sin is our death. We will all eventually die. We are not hopeless or fatalistic because at the same time, Christ is the way to life. 
Statues, pictures, and crosses were veiled in churches. Not because they were trying to be hidden, but rather to draw attention to them and to remind Christians that sin infects all. 
"Alleluias" were prohibited in the liturgy and in hymns. The "Gloria in Excelsius" which we know as "Glory to God in the Highest" was eliminated from the liturgy during Lent. Bells were not rung. The liturgical color violet was used. By the 6th century, the practice of "giving up something for Lent" began, but it was much different than what we experience now. Then, a person chose to give up something good for Lent, not some destructive habit. A public announcement was made so that others could monitor the progress. This sacrifice was seen as a spiritual discipline, focused on learning to rely more on Christ and was part of the devotional life. It was also very early in the history of the church that mid-week services during Lent were begun as a time for further devotion and instruction. 
We don't have to go about with sour faces and eyes cast down, eating rarely, avoiding meat, or other such practices. To do that would indeed be practicing our piety before others, in order to be seen by them. Rather, Lent is a time to change some things in our lives so that we are open to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a time to learn more about the Bible, worship God and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen our faith in a Christ who died for us. His death means that the ashes we wear on our foreheads are wiped away by a risen Christ who promises everlasting life.

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