This Wednesday, February 6, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, which will continue for 40 days (not counting Sundays) until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, which will be celebrated this year on March 23.
UPDATE: I seem to have been mistaken, as I was afraid I would be, about the exact extent of Lent. It actually runs from Ash Wednesday and ends before the Mass of the Lord's Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday, at which point the Easter Triduum begins.
At Mass this afternoon, Fr. Garry said that Lent was probably his favorite season of the year, and I just couldn't relate. Though Lent has sometimes been a beneficial time for me spiritually, my overall gut reaction to it is rather gloomy. I think there are a few reasons for this.
One of my earliest childhood memories of Lent is of waiting in a long line to eat disgusting seafood at a Long John Silver's one cold Friday night, because Catholics are required to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. A good deal of my subsequent spiritual struggles can probably be traced back, in one way or another, to hush puppies.
In recent years, I have tried to practice the discipline of fasting during Lent, which involves eating one regular meal and two small meatless meals each day, with no snacking. I don't think this has ever turned out very well. I'm not a good faster. I tend to go back and forth between feeling bad because I'm hungry and feeling bad because I'm not being strict enough about my fasting. I can't say for sure, of course, but I don't think I've ever gotten any spiritual benefit out of my rather half-hearted attempts at fasting.
So for me, Lent has often felt like one long trial to be endured, waiting impatiently for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection at Easter, and the return to normal eating patterns.
But Lent is supposed to be so much more than that. It's supposed to be a time of spiritual growth, of drawing closer to God, of reflecting on our lives and striving to be better, of doing good deeds for others out of love, and of dedicating ourselves more fully to prayer. Lent is a solemn, penitential time, but it is also a time of great blessedness.
I like the opening few sentences of Pope Benedict XVI's Lenten Message 2008:
"Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving."
So yeah. I'm going to try to take a better attitude towards the season of Lent this year. I haven't decided exactly what concrete measures I'll take, but I'm working on it, and I pray that this Lenten season will be a very blessed one.
If you're interested in some specific suggestions about how to observe the season of Lent, Tan Books has a pretty good document called "Pious Practices for Lent" that you can download for free from their website.