Where does the concept of Lent come from?
At Jesus' baptism the sky split open, the Spirit of God, which looked like a dove, descended and landed on Jesus, and a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, My Beloved, with whom I am pleased." Afterward, as told in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus hiked into the wilderness where he spent forty days to fast and pray. While he was there, he was tempted by Satan and found the strength to resist sin.
How do Christians celebrate Lent?
It's different in different traditions. But generally it's a time to return to Christ by cutting out all that distracts us. For some people that means giving up something like candy, TV, soft drinks, or meat as a way to purify their bodies and lives. Others take something on and collect food for the needy, volunteer once a week to help children, or decide to be kind to someone they don't like. Whatever "stuff" is given up or taken on, the intent must be to draw us closer to Christ. Lent is a resolution to simplify our lives, and to return to the One who loves us -- Jesus.
When is Lent?
It's the forty days before Easter.
So the real beginning of Lent is Ash Wednesday?
Yes. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, usually begins with a service where we recognize our mortality, repent of our sins, and return to our Loving God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God, and re-turn our lives towards Jesus Christ. We may make resolutions and commit to change our lives over the next forty days so that we might be more like Christ. In an Ash Wednesday service, usually a minister or priest marks the sign of the cross on a person's forehead with ashes.
In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality, because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust/ dirt/ash/whatever. Repentance:, because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear "sackcloth" (scratchy clothing) to remind them that sin is pretty uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.
Cool Things To Do for Lent
(1) Fast one day a week.
(2) Start a prayer "rhythm." Say a prayer every time you brush your teeth or check your facebook (the last one may have some of us praying a lot!).
(3) Read a chapter in the Bible a day (The Gospel of Mark is a good book to start with).
(4) Give up cokes or sweets. Give the money you save to a charity.
(5) Spend ten minutes a day in silence and begin every morning with prayer.
(6) Journal every day.
(7) Give up secular music and/or TV.
(8) Say one nice thing to someone each day and/or write an encouraging note to someone.
(9) Pray for others on your way to work or school. Take prayer walks once a day in God's creation.
(10) Commit to volunteering at the church or another service ministry.
Here's a good video that explains Ash Wednesday and Lent in under two minutes.