Season of renewal: Ash Wednesday marks beginning of Lent, 40-day penance period for Christians

Sunday, March 6, 2011
A parishioner, with an ash cross on his forehead, prays during an Ash Wednesday service at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007, marking the beginning of Lent. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On Wednesday Christians will celebrate the beginning of the Easter season.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period that culminates in Easter, which is April 24.

The 40 days of Lent, excluding Sundays, represents of the time Jesus spent in the desert before he started his public ministry, according to the Bible.

It is common to hear Christians, especially Catholics, say they are "giving up" something for Lent. While quitting smoking or swearing off junk food is a healthy choice, church leaders say Lent's true purpose is a spiritual cleansing.

The Rev. Patrick Nwokoye with Catholic Campus Ministries at Southeast Missouri State University said Lent is a penitential season.

"It is a time when we turn away from what is keeping us from experiencing the love of God and return our hearts and minds to God," he said. "When I say 'penitential season,' I'm talking about a time where we try to take away from our lives everything that is actually keeping us from experiencing the love of God.

"The Jewish people have a time of atonement, and we have this penitential season."

The Rev. Roethemeyer with Emmanuel United Church of Christ in Jackson said Lent is a time to focus on renewal and self-examination.

"There are two directions you look at," he said. "Not only is it an examination of your self-discipline and prayer life, but certainly retuning our focus on our relationship with God in the sense of following in the footsteps of Christ in service to others."

Beyond giving up and overcoming sin during Lent, Roethemeyer stresses it is a time look at our generosity, as well.

"I always look at it from the point of view of not just giving up something, but what kind of self-healing can you do in your generosity to others," Roethemeyer said. "For instance, the dollar that you would have paid for a soda, put it toward a project in that seven weeks for food for the hungry or some kind of project that will help benefit someone. Rather than to give up, give toward."

Christian leaders agree that even small steps can create a huge difference in one's life, and Lent gives people the opportunity to focus on those small, personal changes for the greater good.

"We can start with simple things," Patrick said. "Quit gossiping, mind the language that we use, spend time -- maybe five minutes a day or so -- to pray and meditate. If we are cheating, stop doing that; reconnect with family members and neighbors. We can't do the big stuff all the time, but the small stuff can actually help us do the big stuff."

The Lent season is a chance for Christians to recharge and refocus, but both Roethemeyer and Nwokoye agree that this sense of renewal should not stop when Lent comes to a close.

"The fruit of Lent should not end on Good Friday, or on Easter Sunday," Nwokoye said. "It should actually continue. That is when the true conversion takes place. When we turn away from those sins, we should never look back at them again. At the end of Lent, the fruit of that penance which we have started during Lent will endure for the rest of our lives so that we become better people, just as God has destined us to be."

Roethemeyer agreed, saying it is a continuous process.

"That's exactly where I see Lent; it's not a New Year's resolution, it's an all-year reflection and renewal," he said. "As a pastor, you try to help a person understand that it's not just something that happens in seven weeks and then we're done, like when Easter Sunday comes, we've graduated. We don't graduate. We continue on in that journey of faith."

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