The season of Lent began as a 40-hour observance commemorating the period of time Jesus' body lay in the tomb which ended on Easter morning. Over time, this observance was increased to the week prior to Easter starting on Palm Sunday recalling all of the events of Jesus' passion, which comes from the Latin word for suffering. This is what became known as Holy Week. Eventually, the six days grew into 36 days representing a tithe (10%) of the year meant to be a time devoted to spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, meditation, and giving. The sacrifices associated with the practices help Christians focus on the suffering Christ endured for us.
By the 8th century, four more days were added to make Lent a season of 40 days keeping with the biblical significance of events like the 40 days Moses was on Mt. Sinai, the 40 days Elijah fasted, and the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Therefore, Lent begins on a Wednesday, and since the Sundays in Lent are not counted in the 40 days, we refer to them as the Sundays in Lent. The Sundays can be a time of breaking from spiritual practices and focusing on celebration in worship.
Ash Wednesday got its name from the ritual of marking people's heads with ashes made from the burned palm fronds of the previous Palm Sunday. The ashes are a symbol from the Old Testament representing our desire to repent and turn to God. The ashes also represent our mortality as we hear the words, "From ashes you came and to ashes you shall return." This ritual reminds us that while we are physical beings, we are also more than that; we are essentially spiritual beings. We begin Lent recognizing these two realities with a desire to give attention to our souls and draw closer to Christ who gave his life for the redemption of all humankind.
Lent takes its name from an old Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, which sounds a lot like lengthen, pointing to the lengthening of the days as spring approaches. Because fasting or giving-up excess features of daily life has often been practiced in Lent, people in centuries gone by would get rid of fatty items from their pantries. Hence, the day before Ash Wednesday became known as "Fat Tuesday," when people would clean out items they wouldn't indulge in again until Easter. Such self-denial practices today can take on other forms as we, again, give attention to Christ who denied himself and took up a cross, the symbol of God's forgiveness of our sin.