Christians Usher in Lent on Ash Wednesday

Millions of Christians ushered in the 40-day season of Lent by imposing the sign of the cross on their foreheads with ash, on Wednesday, February 9, 2005.

Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before Easter – not counting Sundays – marks the beginning of a season of reflection and penitence for Christians of all traditions. While Protestants generally do not mark their foreheads with ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday ceremonies – a tradition observed in the Catholic and Anglican churches – they hold special services and give special prayers for repentance and renewal on the holiday. Lutherans and Methodists also use ash in their observances.

Often times, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics and Episcopalians choose to abstain from eating, drinking or doing certain things to remind them of the Lord’s sacrifice for mankind. They also choose to read the Bible more or to do something that brings them closer to God.

Catholics meanwhile travel by the thousands to Rome each year to hear special prayers and services delivered by the Pope. However, this year, Pope John Paul II missed public prayers for the first time in his papacy because of his illness; he celebrated Mass for doctors in his Rome hospital room while other officials presided in John Paul’s place in Public services.

American Cardinal James Stafford read his own homily in Italian at services at St. Peter’s Basilica, conveying no message from the pope to the Vatican’s resident cardinals, archbishops, bishops and others.

"In addressing you, brothers and sisters, I feel the joy and the honor of leading this solemn ceremony in the name of the Holy Father," said Stafford, who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican tribunal that deals with excommunications and other issues, according to the Associated Press.

"We feel his spiritual presence among us and we remember him with affection while asking the Lord to grant him the graces necessary for his charisma as primate to unite the brothers in the faith.”

Easter will be observed on Sunday, March 27 this year.