Forty days of prayer, reflection and self-sacrifice begin today for Christian celebrants of Lent.

An on-campus prayer service marking the beginning of the Lenten season will take place at noon today on the outdoor platform between the UCen and the lagoon.

St. Mark’s University Parish, the Lutheran Campus Ministry and St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church are sponsoring the event.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and continues through Easter Sunday. The last week of Lent, beginning with Palm Sunday, is called “Holy Week,” a time for Christians to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Receiving ashes gives Catholics an opportunity to express their faith on their foreheads,” Fr. Joe Scott, pastor of St. Mark’s University Parish, said. “It’s a way to say ‘I’m a Christian.’ It is also a sign of turning toward God, turning away from sin and making a new start in one’s life.”

The most common ritual practice performed during Lent is fasting. Up until the mid-1900s, people observed a very strict fast throughout the 40 days of Lent, but today most people only observe a fast on Ash Wednesday and again two days before Easter on Good Friday.

“A fast day means eating only one normal-sized meal and perhaps having a light snack or two during the day,” Scott said. “During Lent, Catholics also abstain from eating meat on Friday. It is acceptable to eat fish and other foods like fruit and vegetables on the Fridays of Lent.”

Although not all Catholic churches celebrate Lent, they all understand that Lent is a special “time of prayer and turning toward God,” Scott said. “It’s a day whose popularity continues to grow each year.”

Many local parishes will be offering special prayer services and retreats in the next 40 days.

St. Mark’s will hold services today with the distribution of ashes at 8:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. – Mass will be held in English at 5:00 p.m. and Spanish at 6:30 p.m. St. Michael’s will hold services at 7:30 a.m. and at 5:30 p.m., in addition to the joint celebration on campus.

Scott said that during Lent it seems as though the whole church makes a collective 40-day retreat.

“Forty is a significant number in the Bible,” Scott said. “Moses and the chosen people wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. After his baptism, Jesus wandered into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and pray. The practice of a 40-day fast during Lent dates back at least to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.”