For Thibodaux resident Melba Chiasson, Ash Wednesday is like being reborn.
"It means that we're coming back in life, and I feel that I am," she said. "One morning, I got up and couldn't breathe. I was on a respirator for six days, and I feel God gave me my life back. I'm coming to receive the ashes with a good heart, and I hope I have many more years to go."
Christians around the world marked the beginning of Lent by attending church services Wednesday and having ashes spread on their foreheads. Lent is a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter, when Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection.
To believers, ashes represent mortality but also the hope for eternal life. They are a reminder of God's message to Adam: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
"The imposition of ashes is a human development in the church," said the Rev. Richard Rudnik of Grace Lutheran Church in Houma. "It's not proclaimed in Scripture, but it's a good ritual to remind us. The main thing to remember is you should turn away from sin and worldliness and turn to the love of God."
This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine's Day.
Rudnik said that while humans are capable only of "limited, broken love," Christ offers "complete, unstoppable love."
"The mark of the cross in ashes on your forehead is a greater symbol of love than the hearts we plaster everywhere," he said.
Excluding Sundays, Christians celebrate Lent for 40 days, the amount of time they believe Jesus spent fasting in a desert while being tempted by Satan.
The Rev. Don Ross of First United Methodist Church of Houma said the season offers a fresh start and is a good time to return to church if you haven't been in a while.
"Lent means you're regular in worship, you do regular Bible study, you do regular prayers, you do acts of kindness," he said. "(When fasting,) you might want to take the money you would have spent on food and give it to the poor or use the time you would have spent preparing food for service or prayer. It's not simply not eating. It's a matter of substituting or doing something that will bring you closer to God."
The Rev. Mitch Semar of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Thibodaux also encouraged Christians to make their Lenten sacrifices meaningful.
"If I'm giving something up, it should be so that I can make room for my relationship with the Lord," he said. "If I'm giving up Facebook or Instagram, it's not so I can fill that time up with other stuff. It's so I can spend that time praying and getting to know the Lord more."
Thibodaux resident Hannah Benoit said she fasts and tries to be more involved in church during Lent. She said receiving ashes gives Christians a way to be open about their faith.
"It's a time to remember what Jesus did for you," she said. "It's a very small way of being appreciative of what he did."
-- Staff Writer Bridget Mire can be reached at 448-7639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bridget_mire.