Lent comes from the Old English word lencten for "spring"
Lencten was used as this was the season of the year during which it falls. This is something unique to English. In almost all other languages its name is a derivative of the Latin term quadragesima, or "the forty days."
Lent is the forty day period before Easter, excluding Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). [This traditional enumeration does not precisely coincide with the calendar according to the liturgical reform. In order to give special prominence to the Sacred Triduum (Mass of the Lord's Supper, Good Friday, Easter Vigil) the current calendar counts Lent as only from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, up to the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Even so, Lenten practices are properly maintained up to the Easter Vigil, excluding Sundays, as before.]
Shrove Tuesday
The day before Ash Wednesday, is celebrated in many parts of the world with feasting. The French call it "Mardi Gras". The Germans call it "Fausching". The feasting comes from the custom of using up household fats prior to the 40 days of Lenten fasting, when no fat is used.
Ash Wednesday
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is the day on which the faithful have their foreheads signed with ashes in the form of a Cross. It is also a day of fast and abstinence.
Station of the Cross
Since Lent is a penitential season of preparation for Easter, the Stations of the Cross, which follow the path of Christ from Pontius Pilate's praetorium to Christ's tomb have been a popular devotion in parishes. In the 16th century, this pathway was officially entitled the "Via Dolorosa" (Sorrowful Way) or simply Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross.
Fasting and Abstinence
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. In this country, 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 the requirement of fasting by their pastor. A day of abstinence is a day on which Catholics fourteen years or older are required to abstain from eating meat (under the current discipline in America, fish, eggs, milk products, and condiments or foods made using animal fat are permitted in the Western Rite of the Church, though not in the Eastern Rites.) Again, persons with special dietary needs can easily be dispensed by their pastor.
The book of Daniel states: "In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia . . . 'I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.'" (Daniel 10:1-3)
Why Fast and Abstain
We fast and abstain: Because Jesus told us to. "Unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it will produce much fruit." Unless you do penance you shall all likewise perish. Whoever does not renounce all that he has, cannot be my disciple. The Christian must take up his Cross daily and follow Christ. Walk in the spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. St. Paul says, those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If you live according to the flesh, you will die. Whoever seeks to lose his life, will gain it. Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Many live as enemies of the Cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly. And their glory is their shame, with minds set on earthly things. If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God. Enter by the narrow gate for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Why is giving up something for lent a salutary custom
By denying ourselves something we enjoy, we discipline our wills so that we are not slaves to our pleasures. Just as indulging the pleasure of eating leads to physical flabbiness and, if this is great enough, an inability to perform in physically demanding situations, indulging in pleasure in general leads to spiritual flabbiness and, if this is great enough, an inability to perform in spiritually demanding situations, when the demands of morality require us to sacrifice something pleasurable (such as sex before marriage or not within the confines of marriage) or endure hardship (such as being scorned or persecuted for the faith). By disciplining the will to refuse pleasures when they are not sinful, a habit is developed which allows the will to refuse pleasures when they are sinful. There are few better ways to keep one's priorities straight than by periodically denying ourselves things of lesser priority to show us that they are not necessary and focus our attention on what is necessary.
Why are sundays excluded
Because Sunday is the day on which Christ arose, making it an inappropriate day to fast and mourn our sins. On Sunday we must celebrate Christ's resurrection for our salvation. It is Friday on which we commemorate his death for our sins. The Sundays of the year are days of celebration and the Fridays of the year are days of penance.
What basis does the church have authority to establish fast and abstinence
On the authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus told the leaders of his Church, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). The language of binding and loosing was a rabbinic way of referring to the ability to establish binding or rules of conduct for the faith community. It is thus especially appropriate that the references to binding and loosing occur in Matthew, the "Jewish Gospel."
Thus, the states: "BINDING AND LOOSING (Hebrew, . . . Rabbinical term for 'forbidding and permitting.' . . . "The power of binding and loosing as always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra the Pharisees, says Josephus (1:5:2), 'became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.' . . . The various schools had the power 'to bind and to loose'; that is, to forbid and to permit (3b); and they could also bind any day by declaring it a fast-day (. . . 12a . . .). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age of the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice (9; 23b). "In this sense Jesus, when appointing his disciples to be his successors, used the familiar formula (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes and Pharisees who 'bind heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers'; that is 'loose them,' as they have the power to do (Matt. 23:2-4). In the same sense the second epistle of Clement to James II ('Clementine Homilies,' Introduction [A.D. 221]), Peter is represented as having appointed Clement as his successor, saying: 'I communicate to him the power of binding and loosing so that, with respect to everything which he shall ordain in the earth, it shall be decreed in the heavens; for he shall bind what ought to be bound and loose what ought to be loosed as knowing the rule of the Church.'" (3:215). Thus, Jesus invested the leaders of this Church with the power of making for the Christian community. This includes the setting of fast days (like Ash Wednesday). To approach the issue from another angle, every family has the authority to establish particular family devotions for its members. Thus, if the parents decide that the family will engage in a particular devotion at a particular time (say, Bible reading after supper), it is a sin for the children to disobey and skip the devotion for no good reason. In the same way, the Church as the family of God has the authority to establish its own family devotion, and it is a sin for the members of the Church to disobey and skip the devotions for no good reason (though of course if the person has a good reason, the Church dispenses him immediately).