Ash Wednesday starts the Christian season of Lent.
In the Catholic Church, it's a time for prayer, fasting, alms giving and acts of self-mortification - abstinences, such as giving up meat on Friday. Ashes are dabbed on the foreheads of the faithful.
"As ashes are put on the forehead, we pray 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel,' in keeping with the gospel of Christ," said Monsignor Kevin McCoy of the Holy Trinity Parish in Fort Dodge.
"When we fast or we abstain from particular practices, it raises our own consciousness," McCoy said. "We think of God and we are mindful of being created in God's image. Abstinence also should motivate us to think about our neighbor. Another penitential practice of Lent is to assist those in need."
Lent is the time, he said, for Christians to "raise our hearts and minds to the Lord. It makes us mindful of our neighbors, as well."
For congregation members of First Presbyterian Church, Lent "is a time of spiritual reflection that prepares us to celebrate the gift of Christ's saving work on the cross and the resurrection to new life at Easter," said the Rev. J. Faulkner Martin. "In a Protestant tradition, we're just starting to bring back Ash Wednesday and spiritual practices. It becomes a training that develops over time for all believers to gain an appreciation for the meaning of Lent."
Faulkner said the church is challenging the congregation to lighten up for Lent.
"We're playing off the word light," he said. "We'll practice healthy nutritional choices, exercise and basically care for the body God gave us as it is his holy temple. The spirit lives within."
The second part of the lightening up "is trying to get folks to attend our Bible studies and special services to embolden the light of Christ within us." he said. To that end, each Sunday night after the 7 p.m. Lenten services people in the lighten up program will be able to meet with a nutritionist.
"Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and self-denial," said the Rev. Richard Graves at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. "It's a battle between the flesh and the spirit, that dualism, and it's gotten us, quite frankly, in a lot of trouble. God is a God of the flesh, too. The basic tenet of Christianity is that God became flesh."
He said fasting is an important part of Lent because "by fasting, you are denying the evil part of you, and therefore, the spirit is allowed to emerge. Giving up chocolate for Lent? What impact does that have? I don't think that moves the spiritual ball anywhere. It's really about you, and not about God's world.
"If you want a spiritual life, you have to pray. Prayer is really going inside, not being externally focused. When you go within, you look at the state of your internal life. People walk through the valleys of the shadows of their own, but at the same time they should remember that God loves us and God accepts us. It's keeping those things in balance, so we don't become overwrought with our wretchedness."
And Lent, when all is said, is preparation for the coming of Easter.
Contact Sandy Mickelson at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org