Lent is not just about giving up pleasures like chocolate or television; it's about getting spiritually fit, said the Rev. Jim Kubajak, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church.
"An athlete who doesn't practice is not going to do well. In order to prepare ourselves for Easter, the most holy day, it makes sense that we practice and get ready," he said.
For most of the world's Christians, the 40-day period of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday begins on Wednesday. Byzantine Catholics, who are governed under their own rules but are under the authority of the Roman Catholic pope, begin Lent on Monday.
"I jokingly say that our people need two extra days to prepare for Easter," Father Kubajak said.
He said the spiritual disciplines that people practice during Lent should not be limited to the 40-day season.
"It's about getting control of yourself," he said. "Actually, most of the stuff that we talk about for Lent is good all year, but we can't bring ourselves to do it. I would like to encourage people to do something radical like read the Bible, maybe actually spend 15 minutes a day praying."
Spiritual discipline and the need to repent of sin are threads that are common to all denominations observing Lent.
The imposition of ashes on a person's forehead, an ancient ritual that will be performed in many churches next week on Ash Wednesday, serves as a reminder of one's sin and mortality.
"The ashes are a very traditional symbol of penitence," said the Rev. Margaret Sammons of St. Michael's in the Hills Episcopal Church. "But I think the deeper meaning is the symbol of our mortality. As in the words we say [when administering ashes], 'Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.' None of us are superhuman. We can't do it all. We can't carry the load all by ourselves. We have limits."
At the evening service on Ash Wednesday at the Ottawa Hills church, where Ms. Sammon is co-rector with her husband, the Rev. Greg Sammons, the congregation is asked to write Lenten resolutions on pieces of paper and then burn them in an outdoor grill.
"We write on them things that are standing between us and God," Ms. Sammons said.
It is important during Lent to set aside quiet time for devotions, she added.
"Life is so busy, there's no time for listening otherwise. Lent is a time to think about what kind of person we are and what kind of person we are becoming. It's a reorientation kind of time."
The Rev. Susan Rowlands, associate pastor of Sylvania United Church of Christ, said the focus for Lent is discipleship and God's calling in people's lives.
"One of the things we try to challenge folks about is that if there's something that's keeping you from experiencing God in your life or serving God, then give it up. Or if there is something you need to be doing, then pick it up," Ms. Rowlands said. "It may not be giving something up; it may be doing something."
The Rev. Aristotle Damaskos, dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Toledo, said Lent is a time "when we reflect to see how we are."
Eastern Orthodox churches do not begin observing Great Lent until March 10 this year, nearly five weeks after the Western Christian observance. But Father Aristotle said the message is not to just prayerfully reflect, but also to do good works.
"Maybe you should be helping out at a soup kitchen, donating clothes you're not wearing. Make that extra space and get rid of the clutter," he said. "It's a spiritual cleanup. The whole thing is coming closer to Christ."
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Lenten address last week, stressed the importance of helping those in need.
"Lent invites us to 'train ourselves' spiritually, also through the practice of almsgiving, in order to grow in charity and recognize in the poor Christ himself," the Pope said.
He said the Gospel teaches that "we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess," and cautioned against giving in expectation of receiving any recognition or reward.
"There is little use in giving one's personal goods to others if it leads to a heart puffed up in vainglory: for this reason, the one who knows that God 'sees in secret' and in secret will reward, does not seek human recognition for works of mercy," Pope Benedict said.
- David Yonke