Many Christian congregations mark the start of the Lenten season today by placing an ashen cross on parishioners' foreheads.

But what does the ritual of Ash Wednesday really mean?

"It's all about a call to repentance," said Richard Wolf, pastoral associate for elementary education at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church. "The words that used to be said were, 'From dust you came and unto dust you shall return.'

"The more popular phrases now are, 'Repent and live the Gospel.' "

The Rev. Robert Herzog of St. James Episcopal Church said the ashes are a reminder of physical death, something his congregation is studying in their Lenten Bible course, "The Christian Way of Death: Before, During and After."

"The course is based on the premise that there is life after death," he said. "We need time to think about the resurrection of the body, but we have todeal with the practical things of growing old and dying first."

The solemn Ash Wednesday ceremony prepares Christians for the introspective season of Lent.

"Lent is a reflective season of 40 days thatcorresponds to Christ's 40 days in the wilderness," said Herzog. "Weall have times in the wilderness, times that we are cut off from thethings we count on.

"(Lent) enables us to know that, to review what that means for ourselves and our family."

The Rev. Robert Zimmerli of Westminster United Methodist said the 40 days also have referred to the 40 hours Jesus spent in the tomb between his crucifixion onGood Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Lent -- which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for lengthening of days at spring -- can be a time to prepare for the tragedy of Christ's crucifixion, coupledwith joy of the resurrection at Easter, he said.

"We live by manysymbols in the Christian year," he said. "It's a time to be penitentand prepare for the victory of overcoming the cross at Easter.

"We should always have forgiveness and the reflection of sin, but this is just a reminder."

Pastors said they encourage parishioners to look beyond the traditional rituals of giving something up or fasting.

"We're encouraging a more positive action rather than the denial or more purgative kinds of things," Wolf said. "Things like praying more, remembering a favorite charity or working on a relationship thatis challenging."

Wolf said his church was stressing reconciliation between social groups and with God by studying the Bible.

Parishioners at St. James are also adding quiet prayer to their lives and are encouraged to keep a log of what they pray for and whether the requests were answered, Herzog said.

"We already know what the answers will be -- yes, no or not now," he said. "I did that a few years ago and found that 80 percent of what I asked for was already granted."

But Lent takes on a special meaning this year because of the Persian Gulf war, Herzog said.

"Because of the world situation, it is important for us to use this time to find out what God's purpose is for ourselves and the whole human family," he said.

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