Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten Season for many Christians in the Western World. It's a season of prayer and penance and a period of preparation for the Easter Season. Lent lasts six and a half weeks, ending on Easter. Observances date back to the fourth century. Christian churches in the eastern world follow a different timetable for Lent.
Here is a message from Bishop Michael Jarrell with the Diocese of Lafayette:
"We live in a world in which many people deny the existence of God, the existence of an immortal soul, and the existence of sin. Yet, the vast majority of Americans believe in these truths. On Ash Wednesday, Christians flock to their churches to express their faith in God and to acknowledge their own sins. They come to begin a season of penance and personal renewal. They come to ask God's forgiveness of their sins. They come to seek the mercy of Jesus. "Put ashes on my forehead," they say, "as an external sign of my heartfelt desire to gain victory over sin." John the Baptist said: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." These words marked the lives of the first Christians and we live by them today. I pray for the grace of true repentance in the hearts of all."
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