Lent is the liturgical season when Catholics spiritually prepare to commemorate Christ's passion, death and resurrection at Easter. Canon 1249 in the Code of Canon Law instructs Catholics to "devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence."
Canon 1250 says these penitential practices are done during the "season of Lent," which is 46 days long minus the six Sundays in Lent. The Lenten exercises begin on Ash Wednesday when Catholics typically are anointed with ashes recalling their mortality and end at noon on Holy Saturday. Canon 1251 decrees that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of both fast and abstinence from meat but requires only abstinence on the other Fridays of Lent.
Lent's 40 days of prayer, almsgiving and fasting imitates Our Lord's 40-day fast in the dessert recorded in chapter four of Matthew's Gospel. By it, Our Lord not only showed man how to vanquish the devil but also showed him how to overcome the threefold concupiscence listed in 1 John 2:16, "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life."
During Lent, Catholics prepare for a more fruitful reception at Easter of the graces merited by Christ's passion and death. They unite more intimately with God in prayer, mortify their unruly desires with self-denial and give themselves to others more fully by alms and works of mercy. In his 1966 apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, Bl. Pope Paul VI says reconciling with God is aided by "the traditional triad of 'prayer—fasting—charity.'"
As per the precepts of the Church related in paragraph 2042 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all Catholics must annually confess any mortal sins and worthily "receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season." This Easter Duty, as it's called, must be fulfilled sometime between Ash Wednesday and Trinity Sunday.
Discover the spiritual value of the penitential season in Church Militant's Premium show The Download—Lent.