Many faithful foreheads wore a mark of ash on Wednesday. It was the start of their 40-day penitential season, or Lent.

Many faithful foreheads wore a mark of ash on Wednesday. It was the start of their 40-day penitential season, or Lent.

Not every Christian observes Lent but for those that do, it is a time of sacrifice and devotion to become closer in their relationship with God. Though Lent is not prescribed in the Bible, it mimics the time Jesus went to the desert in the 40 days leading up to the start of his ministry. In this meditative time, he was tempted repeatedly by the devil, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke say. Because of this Christians often use this time to sacrifice something they cherish, to give of their time and charity or to devote themselves to daily prayers and church attendance.

Ron Cunningham, pastor at Hyde Presbyterian Church, remembers his childhood in New Orleans. For Fat Tuesday, the last day of Mardi Gras, everybody would dress up for one last day of partying, because once Ash Wednesday came, they knew they’d have to adorn somber attire. "It’s the beginning of the 40-day season of trials and tribulations," said Cunningham, "that starts with the people putting all of their fineries, all of their jewelry and all of their beauty up. … It is a time when we remember what the Christian message of Jesus Christ is all about."

Father Wesley Evans of the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church said sacrificing something valuable helps worshipers realize how much power things can have. "We can reevaluate whether it’s good or bad. … Is it really that high of a priority? Should it be that important? Usually the answer is no."

Not all people give something up, though. Some people will do acts of contrition or devotion. Helen Summer, of St. Stephen’s, will devote herself to saying a morning prayer, that focuses her attention on God. "It’s called a Lenten discipline. In other words, you choose something that will help you build your character."

She recited a sample of her morning ritual for Lent: "O Come let us sing unto the Lord. Let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation."

Cathy Heraldsen said she is trying to do something out of her comfort zone and increase her prayer life. As a secretary for St. Patrick Catholic Church, she sees a lot of people come seeking her help. In an effort to do more for her community, she said she wants to be a little bit more open about what they need sometimes just by listening.

"Sometimes people just need to come and talk," said Heraldsen. "And sometimes they may not need anything. … As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized — giving up is important, don’t get me wrong — but sometimes you have to learn to give extra. …Now I’m trying to do that … put things in front of people that maybe will help them."

Churches practicing Lent have not only offered an Ash Wednesday service but will offer many services for the next six weeks centering on the season of penance and reflection. There will be Lenten potlucks, usually served with no meat. There will be guided prayers and every Friday, many churches will offer services about the Stations of the Cross, a series of scenes in the final hours of Jesus’ life.

"Lent is trying to get the Christian away from the physical world of stuff and deal with their basic souls," said Cunningham. He sees his church’s job during this time as helping Christians to become more aware of God’s presence.

Evans advised those at Ash Wednesday to take care with their devotion. He read from scripture that said Jesus told followers to worship in secret and not make it public that they were fasting by washing their faces, oiling their hair and keep up appearances. "The spiritual discipline, things like fasting and the church year, are really just tools. … They’re methods of getting closer to Jesus and being more like him. … It’s not just a personal self-help thing but really should be a spiritual season to serve our Lord better," said Evans.

For Heraldsen, and many others, there is a desired outcome for their penance: "With the six weeks you can really change the way you look at things. … Hopefully, if it works out right, it will be something that I’ll be doing for the rest of my life."