Christians throughout Harford County observe Ash Wednesday today (Wednesday). Purple sashes drape the doors at St. Margarets in Bel Air. (Aegis file fhoto, Patuxent Homestead / February 20, 2012)

After yet another snowstorm this week, spring seems a long way off, but theologically speaking, it could be just around the corner.

"I told the congregation Sunday that, given the weather lately, Lent means 'springtime,'" the Rev. Craig McLaughlin, of Bel Air's Mt. Zion Methodist Church, said just before Ash Wednesday.

"Starting this Wednesday, that is kind of a hopeful sign there," McLaughlin pointed out about the possibility that winter might finally be drawing to a close.

Snow or not, Christians from around Harford County will be observing the start of the Lenten season in a number of ways.

Sign up to receive our free daily email newsletter: Bel Air Today

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the solemn season that traditionally spans 40 days leading up to Easter, a time Jesus spent fasting in the desert, according to the Gospels.

"Lent is a special time for Catholics and Christians in general," Monsignor James Barker, at Hickory's St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, said Monday.

His parish will hold five services on Ash Wednesday, three Masses and two prayer services.

He expects them to be as popular as always.

"They usually are pretty full," Barker said.

Ash Wednesday and Lent, he said, are "a call to look at our lives and reform them, to open our hearts to God, to give up certain things as a way of identifying more with our own neediness... and also to do works of charity."

St. Ignatius parishioners will participate in the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, Barker said.

On the charity end, they will also take part in a collection for Care Night Food Ministry and help the Welcome One homeless shelter and Birthright Pregnancy Resource Center at Anna's House.

"Like every Lent, we try to focus on sharing with the parishioners that our lives are short," Barker said. "Our hope as Christians is to share eternity with the Lord."

Barker said he has seen greater interest in spirituality during this season, with small groups becoming "more popular than ever."

"I think there is a real yearning for understanding the Lord and being close to the Lord," he said. "People want help and support on their spiritual journey."

From ashes to keys

The most popular sign of Ash Wednesday observance continues to be the practice of having cross-shaped ashes placed on one's forehead.

"It's a sign that we are a Christian and we are striving to live life as a Christian, as Jesus did," Barker said.

McLaughlin, who has been at the Methodist Mt. Zion Church for 26 years, said his church began doing an ash service quite a while ago.

"They didn't have an ash service when I came here years ago," he noted.