Richard Hartog

Richard Hartog (Los Angeles Times)

LOS ANGELES -- Christians throughout the Southland will observe Ash Wednesday today, the first day of Lent, when the faithful prepare for Easter by doing penance for sins and seek spiritual renewal through prayer, self- denial and good works.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes of the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance.

A minister or priest marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until washing it off after sundown.

In the Roman Catholic church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat and repentance. Other Christian denominations make fasting optional, with the main focus being on repentance.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, will celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at noon in English and 7 p.m. in Spanish at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where Mass will be also celebrated in English at 6:15 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 3 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.