The History of Lent
The practice of Lent likely has its origins in practical reasons. In agricultural societies (as most Christian cultures were, in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Lent is first mentioned in historical context), winter crops were often scarce. Correspondingly, a period of fasting may have been a spiritual response to a physical need. The excesses and revels of Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, were, in all likelihood, a response to the same phenomenon, as people wanted to consume perishable goods (like meats, eggs, dairy products, and sweets) before they spoiled.
As the practice of Lent evolved, it began to take on the added significance of a preparation of new church members for the baptism of Easter Sunday. In the spirit of Christianity as a community of living faith, this period of fasting and preparation was eventually embraced by all Church members. Additionally, Lent was once referred to as quadragesima, which is Latin for the fortieth day before Easter. The word "Lent" itself is thought to come from a Germanic root, lenct, which initially meant "spring" and, later, "fast."
Why 40 Days?
Lent's duration is actually 46 days. However, as Sundays represent Christ's resurrection, they are not commonly counted in the tally between Ash Wednesday and the Easter vigil. The primary meaning of the fast is considered to be a way of identifying with the suffering of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, and of acknowledging his substitutionary death for the sins of mankind. The meaning of the season is further enriched by other biblical occurrences of the number 40 -- Moses and Elias spent 40days in the wilderness, in a similar manner to Christ, the Jewish people wandered for 40 years, as recorded in Exodus, and Jesus spent 40hours in the tomb, prior to his resurrection.
Colors and Decorations of Lent
For the Lenten season, purple, red and dark violet are often the favored colors, symbolizing the pain of Christ's crucifixion. Gray, the color of ashes, is often used for Ash Wednesday, and this practice is sometimes extended throughout the entire fast. Furthermore, some churches avoid flowers during the season, reintroducing them at Easter (often to great psychological effect) with a flowering cross. Other congregations choose to use a roughly-hewn wooden cross as a focal point throughout the season, symbolizing of Christ's pain and martyrdom.
For Christians of all colors, Lent continues to symbolize the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The period of fasting from certain foods, drinks and activities serves as a reminder of the sorrow and joy of the Resurrection and the truly loving and compassionate spirit of the Christian faith.