Traditionally a period of forty days fasting lasting from Ash Wednesday until the Saturday before Easter. The actual period of just over six weeks is more than the forty days – but the anomally comes about through the fact that Sundays are not included in the days of fasting!

The English word ‘Lent’ means ‘Spring’, but this does not express the significance of the six-week period of spiritual discipline before Easter as conveyed by the 40 days of the Greek tessaracoste or the Latin quadragesima (the latter has given its name to the first Sunday in Lent). Its origin probably lies in the formal and final period of preparation of candidates for baptism at Easter, with which those undergoing penance rapidly became associated. With the atrophy of both of these it became transformed into a period of general de­votional preparation for Easter for all.

Originally it was somewhat variable in length, but six weeks seems to have been the norm in many places from the fourth century onwards, with Quadragesima (Lat ‘forty days’) marking its commencement. When the desire arose to keep the Lenten fast as a strict 40 days, and equally to ex­clude the Sundays from this total on the traditional grounds that Sunday was never a fast day, it was apparent that the week­days of the six weeks before Easter only provided 36 days, so Lent became extended for four days prior to Quadragesima to make up the total and therefore now started on Ash Wednesday.

Various liturgical observances grew up associated with Lent. One of the first of these was the scrutinies, services concerned with the examination of and praying for the candidates preparing for baptism. When Lent was no longer associated with bap­tismal preparation, these no longer took place, being specific to the needs of the baptismal candidates rather than to the season itself, though the modern Roman rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults attempts to revive them.

Within the city of Rome the custom of the stational masses was emphasized in Lent, that is, the principal mass on a par­ticular day, often presided over by the Pope as Bishop of Rome, was celebrated in a particular church, and always the same one on the same day; on certain days the Pope would ride to the stational church in solemn procession. The listing of these stations survived into the 1570 missal. The custom of stational masses was observed in other cities as well, the bishop going round to the various churches in turn. The modern Roman missal merely commends the custom of stational liturgy in Lent in general and very vague terms, as though wanting to preserve a tradition about the possible observance of which in the modern world it was by no means sure.

But the main liturgical provision for Lent consists of the ordinary liturgy provided with appropriate lessons and propers , and with furnishings, vestments and music suitable for the penitential nature of the season. Many churches and congregations will supplement this with a variety of provisions, special services, series of addresses, study groups and so forth. In recent years support for special observance of Lent has probably been in something of a decline.

The traditional lenten mass lections in the Latin rite reflect the needs of the catechumenate, to which material suited to the reconciliation of penitents and the more generally penitential nature of the season was added later, and the modern Roman mass lectionary has preserved a lot of this arrangement.