Lent is one of the later seasons added to the church year. There are obvious allusions to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness when the length of the season was fixed at 40 days. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends at sunset on Holy Saturday. The Sundays in Lent, though observed as Lent, are technically not included in the 40 days of Lent. That is why the season must begin on a Wednesday.
Easter was the first agreed to church observance. The only time baptisms occurred in the early church year was at Easter. So the preparation time for baptism had to happen before Easter. Initially, this was in most places a three year time of study. For a church being persecuted, the church needed to be sure it was not being infiltrated by government spies. That is why the preparation time was so long. The education time continued for another 50 days until Pentecost as a time of reflection after baptism. This is how the Easter season became 50 days long.
After the church became the state church of the Roman Empire, the three year preparation time became less necessary. It gradually shrunk to a year and later to 40 days before Easter. That is how Lent was born – as a season of preparation before baptism. Obviously, the expectation was that it was adults who were baptized. Immersion was the only method of baptism then.
As the church expanded out of the Mediterranean world, particularly into northern, barbarian lands, the needs for making Christians changed. Life was short. It was a very violent world. Baptism might need to happen more than once a year (to get someone baptized before they die). A frozen river or lake may not be suitable for emersion anymore. Child mortality was high. Children may not live long enough to reach adulthood. So children might need to be baptized.
Another phenomenon was that Christianity spread into barbarian lands by converting a local king who would then order that all his citizens be baptized. The king expected everybody, regardless of age, to be baptized. In many cases there was little to no preparation for the citizens. After all, hundreds needed to be baptized speedily. There were no records – everyone was baptized so there was no need to know who was and who wasn’t and by this time most of the priests were also illiterate. So instead of preparation, Lent became a time of repentance, to really focus on our sins in preparation of Easter communion. The focus shifted from baptism to communion. And because the people considered themselves to be so depraved, they didn’t take communion during Lent. By the later Middle Ages, they stopped taking communion altogether except maybe on Easter Sunday and Christmas.
In a recovery of what Lent was originally supposed to be, perhaps we would do well to spend the time of Lent in preparation of renewing our baptismal vows by studying those vows in the Book of Common Prayer on pages 292 – 294.