Millions of Americans will mark the beginning of Lent by dabbing ashes on their foreheads today. But for many more, the Lenten disciplines of prayer and reflection have been a daily routine for the past month.
"Since Jan. 16 [when fighting erupted in the Persian Gulf], people have been in a Lenten mode," said Donna Lee Frisch, a member of the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore. "We have all been in this role of asking, 'What do we do as people of faith?' "
For people of the Christian faith, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent -- 40 days of soul-searching that culminates in Easter. The Lenten season parallels Jesus' trials in the desert: his temptations, triumphs and spiritual growth. Christians try to emulate this journey by retreating from routine and reconsidering religious questions. But since a hallmark of modern Christianity has been to clutch the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, it's not unusual for clergy and laypeople to look for the religious aspect of current events.
This year, such interpretations struggle to make sense of a war that lacks moral absolutes: Many Christians say Saddam Hussein's annexation of Kuwait was wrong, but they wonder if George Bush's decision to attack -- instead of giving economic sanctions more time -- was right.
"The gulf crisis, which is in the desert, is a kind of wilderness -- it's unfamiliar to many Americans," said Mrs. Frisch, an Episcopal layperson who is against the war. "The themes of loss and triumph, death and rebirth are questions not only of Lent but also of this war.
"Will there be any winners? Will there be reconciliation? Are we acting as God would want us to act as co-creators? I don't have a lot of answers, but the questions are raised up."
The moral questions raised by the war echo those asked during Lent: Believers wrestle with the practical implications of justice, repentance and peace.
"All the descriptions we have of Jesus speak more to a man of peace rather than of war," said Rev. Eddie Michael Blue of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Baltimore. "What I am thinking about is, how is Jesus present to all sides in the Persian Gulf crisis?
"I believe Jesus seldom takes sides in war. If he is on the side of anything, it's the side of justice."
But for Rev. Albert Clark, who is also an Episcopal priest, justice, sometimes, can be achieved by a sword.
"The message of peace is an honorable position, but it's not one that I hear in the gospel," said Mr. Clark, the rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Towson. "Jesus said, 'I come to bring a sword.' He set father against son and son against father.
"The main message of Lent is repentance, and the message of the Persian Gulf crisis is the same. I do support the war and what we are doing there. But repentance may not be just ending the war and getting Iraq out of Kuwait. It may mean creating a peaceful situation in what has not been a peaceful part of the world."
Many Christians agree that prayer, always a staple of the Lenten season, takes on added significance during a crisis. Irene Spears, a Roman Catholic laywoman, says she has been praying hard since the war began.
Last week, when she learned one of her two sons had been called up, her prayers intensified.
"My prayers are going to be more frequent," said Mrs. Spears, a parishioner at the Church of St. Cecilia. "I pray the leaders of all the countries will come to understand that war is not the answer. "There must be a peaceful way to resolve these conflicts."
The Rev. Vashti McKenzie agrees: There must be a better way. But until that way is found, she suggests that today's sacrifices echo Jesus' own ministry.
"When we remember the ultimate sacrifice Christ made, we can't help but think of the sacrifices those men and women are making with their own lives today," said Ms. McKenzie of the Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.
She said her church, which has many members personally touched by the war, supports the troops. Wearing yellow ribbons and flying the American flag, congregants are "part of the home guard." Still, war is not God's way, says Ms. McKenzie. But God can transform even war.
"During this Lenten season, God took an instrument of pain and death and turned it into an instrument of transformation," she said, referring to the Christian message of crucifixion and resurrection. "We are in a season of war now.
"We can only hope the instruments of pain and death can be transformed into instruments of life and triumph."