(Photo: Reuters/Eric Thayer)
The season of Lent begins not only for millions of Catholics by having placed a sign of the cross on their foreheads with ash on Wednesday, but with many Christians in and outside of denominations vowing to mark the season with acts of faith.
Though Lent is often seen as part of the Catholic tradition of fasting for 40 days (calculated sometimes to exclude the weekends in the days leading to Easter), many Christians view this time as serving as a reminder to the importance of getting closer to God.
Christine Smith, founder of the online site Womens Bible Cafe, wrote on Tuesday, "Throughout biblical history we see 40 days of testing, waiting and drawing closer to God."
Smith said that Lent typically marks a spiritual quest for Christians and the Bible has several examples of 40-day tests and journeys.
"Look beyond the face of religion and into the heart … and see if God is calling you for the next 40 days," she stated. "Does He want your attention and your heart focused on Him?"
While Protestants generally do not mark their foreheads with ashes from last year's Palm Sunday ceremonies – a tradition mainly observed in the Catholic and Anglican churches – they hold special services and give special prayers for repentance and renewal on the holiday.
Among the few Protestants that do use ash in their observances are Lutherans and Methodists. In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance – a day of contemplating one's transgressions.
Oftentimes, in the days leading to Easter, Christians of all denominations choose to abstain from eating, drinking or doing certain things to remind them of the Lord's sacrifice for mankind.
Some pastors outside of the Catholic faith say that although Lent is not a requirement, focusing on God by way of fasting and other faith-related practices is a good idea in the weeks and days before Easter.
Steve Crenshaw, pastor and founder of the leadership ministry Pinnacle Balance, said his family observed Lent for the first time in 2008.
"We gave up television and video games and spent much more time praying and studying the Bible together," Crenshaw recently wrote on Pinnacle Balance's Website. "We fast for six days taking Saturday or Sunday off because there are actually 46 days in the seven weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter."
He acknowledged in his article that "celebrating Lent as an Evangelical can be awkward" but he emphasized that it can also be "eye-opening."
"It can be awkward because most of the people you know will think you are weird or trying to earn God's favor. It can be eye-opening because you can learn what really has a hold on your life, and how far you are from putting Christ first."
Crenshaw believes that although Christians can "take 40 days and fast any time we want," doing so during Lent is a way to help prepare for Easter and the celebration of Christ rising again.
"For many of us abstaining from anything could be a big breakthrough in our faith because we over indulge so much in American Christian society," he said.
Smith enlisted the help of other Christian leaders who frequently use social media in making suggestions that she included in her article, "Ideas for 40 Days of Fasting or Lent."
Under the section of her article headlined 40 Days of Prayer, she wrote that Mike Kelly of the Bible Memory Coins ministry suggests memorizing Scripture.
Smith quotes Kelly as saying, "Too often our minds are filled with TV, social media, newspapers and general busy-ness. How revolutionary to our spiritual life would it be to truly feed our hearts and minds exclusively with Scripture for 40 Days?"
Another suggestion listed under 40 Days of Praise is to change the radio station in your car or on your computer to Christian music and "listen exclusively for the next 40 days."
"Scan YouTube for Christian songs and save your favorites in your profile," Smith stated. "Richard of www.Tworship.com writes 'Praise and worship are contrasted with attachments to or pursuits of things honored by the world.'"
While offering suggestions, Smith noted that "the decision to spend 40 days focused on God is yours alone."
"Pray over this and see if you are led to do something or possibly wait for another time. Know that during your 40 days you with God you will attract the attention of the enemy and he will throw flaming arrows your way. Stand firm with the shield of faith and keep your eyes and heart on God," she said.