Wednesday, Feb. 26, is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting, prayer, almsgiving and practices of spiritual renewal. Lent continues until Good Friday, April 10. Easter this year will be celebrated on Sunday, April 12.

Lent is a time of spiritual reflection. It can be a time of conversion when we look objectively at how we live our faith. We can pray for the desire and the strength to turn away from sin, which we are admonished to do on Ash Wednesday.

The distribution of ashes, a sign of penance, is an ancient tradition with roots in the Old Testament. It was a public acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness and desire for repentance. It was adopted as part of the Church’s Lenten observance in the eighth century.

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of total abstinence from meat. These also are days of fast, that is, people are limited to one single full meal. All Fridays of Lent are days of total abstinence from meat, a law that binds all Catholics age 14 and older. The law of fasting binds all Catholics from their 18th year until and including their 59th birthday.

Traditionally, as a sign of penance, Catholics would “give-up” a favorite treat or favorite activity. While that is a good practice, observing Lent can be more than just a season without a favorite food or television program.

With prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Lent can be a time when we re-commit to living Gospel-centered lives focused on Christ’s call to love one another as He loved us.

Fasting dates back to the Old Testament. In the book of Joel (2:12), the prophet proclaims, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Luke 5:35).

In addition to being a sign of sacrifice, fasting – and to a lesser degree abstinence – are reminders that we are more than just a physical being. They teach us that we need to be just as vigilant in nourishing our souls as we are in nourishing our bodies.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines “intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice,” and recommends “voluntary self-denial” such as fasting. It says that fasting and other forms of penance “help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”

Even the ashes we receive on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent, remind us that the physical is passing, but the spiritual remains eternally.

St. John Paul II once said that Lenten sacrifices are a “means to be able to leave material things behind, to abandon them for a superior motive, a spiritual motive, to live more according to the spirit than according to the flesh.”

In the first years of the Church, Lent was observed only for 40 hours, as a symbol of the belief that Jesus’s body was in the tomb for 40 hours. It was celebrated from noon on Good Friday and ended at 3 a.m. on Easter, which was generally believed then to be the time that Christ was resurrected from the dead.

In the third century, Lent was extended from 40 hours to six days, thus beginning Holy Week. Later, the six days were extended to 36 days (representing one-tenth of the 365-day year). It was not until the eighth century that four additional days were added to create our current celebration of Lent. The added days were Ash Wednesday, and the following Thursday, Friday and Saturday, running up to the First Sunday in Lent. In the calculation of the 40 days, Sundays are not included.

Forty days seems like a long time to make acts of penance. But, the number 40 has a long Biblical tradition as an appropriate amount of time to make such sacrifices:

• Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days (Matthew 4:2);

Jonah warned Nineveh that it only had 40 days to repent before it would be destroyed (Jonah 3:4);

• The great prophet Elijah traveled 40 days on Mount Horeb before he found the cave in which he would receive his visions (3 Kings 19:8);

• Moses’s men spied on the Canaanites for 40 days before they reported that the promise land did indeed flow with milk and honey (Numbers 13:25-26); and

• Moses spent 40 days with the Lord on the mountain when he received the 10 Commandments (Exodus 34:28).

With just a little thought and effort, we can make our observance of Lent exactly what the catechism said it should be, “intense moments of penitential practice.” Lent is a time for special prayer, penance and self-examination that helps us reflect on how to be more Christ-like in our lives