The streets are now quiet, save for the music pirates and drivers unwilling to let go of the bacchanal of the past few weeks. Gone are the vibrations of pounding bass and clouds of confetti. These are now replaced by the singing of hymns and wisps of smoke like outstretched arms to the heavens.
It is the time of Lent—a season that is one of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. It begins on Ash Wednesday and traditionally ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.
According to information provided by Monsignor Cuthbert Alexander of Catholic Media Services Ltd. (Camsel), historically, Lent is the 40-day period before Easter, which the Church uses to prepare for the celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is the day on which they faithful have their foreheads signed with ashes in the form of a Cross. It ends at noon on Holy Saturday. The 40 days excludes the five Sundays of Lent.
The sign of a cross symbolises that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross. This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil, and made a servant of righteousness and Christ. Because ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head.
There is also another meaning to these ashes.
They also symbolise death and so remind us of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he may say, "Remember, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
The ashes are made by burning palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year's Palm Sunday, they are then blessed by a priest.
Lent is 40 days long because 40 days is a traditional number of discipline, devotion, and preparation in the Bible. Since Lent is a period of prayer and fasting, it is fitting for Christians to imitate their Lord with a 40-day period. Christ used a 40-day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for his ministry, which culminated in his death and resurrection, and thus it is fitting for Christians to imitate him with a 40-day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for the celebration of his ministry's climax, Good Friday (His crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (His Resurrection).
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning' [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert."
The 40 days are called Lent because that is the Old English word for spring. Not just because it is the season of the year during which it falls, but because Lent is the Church's springtime during which we start fresh.
Under current canon law in the Western Rite of the Church, a day of fast is one on which Catholics who are eighteen to sixty years old are required to keep a limited fast. One may eat a single, normal meal and have two snacks, so long as these snacks do not add up to a second meal. Children are not required to fast, but their parents must ensure they are properly educated in the spiritual practice of fasting. Those with medical conditions requiring a greater or more regular food intake can easily be dispensed from this requirement. A day of abstinence is a day on which Catholics fourteen years or older are required to abstain from eating meat.
All Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence. Also, Good Friday, the day on which Christ was crucified, is another day of both fast and abstinence. All days in Lent are appropriate for fasting or abstaining, but canon law does not require fasting on those days. Such fasting or abstinence is voluntary, like a freewill offering.
Giving up something one enjoys for Lent, doing physical or spiritual acts of mercy for others, prayer, fasting and abstinence, attention to one's duties, and going to confession and other acts expressing repentance in general.
It is not mandatory to give up something for Lent, however, it is a good and beneficial custom, and parents or caretakers may choose to require it of their children to encourage their spiritual training, which is their prime responsibility in the raising of their children.