Western Christian churches today mark Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the traditional 40-day period of fasting, prayer and penitence before Easter.

To observe the day, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans hold services during which the foreheads of the faithful are marked with the sign of the cross with ashes made from last year's Palm Sunday palms as a sign of repentance and reminder of mortality.

A clergy person or, in some cases, a lay person, applies the ashes with variations of the phrase: "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

For Roman Catholics, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will distribute ashes after the 12:05 p.m. mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

And some clergy are taking up positions at rail stations around the area for what has become known as "ashes to go."

The 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays. Easter falls on April 5 this year.

Lent spawned pre-seasonal celebrations such as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Carnival as a last chance to eat, drink and be merry before the 40 days of self denial began.

Tradition holds that a Philadelphia staple - the soft pretzel - was created by a monk as a Lenten food at a time when the faithful abstained from meat and animal products, such as milk and eggs. Another Lenten staple bestowed to us by German monks is bock beer.

While Lent has traditionally been observed by giving up pleasures, such as sweets, churches now encourage the faithful to do something during the season that will help others or enrich their spiritual lives.

The Eastern Orthodox Church will mark the start of the Great Lent on Monday and it will celebrate Easter on April 12.