"Today is the time to begin the training period to begin again," the pastor told the little band of faithful gathered for the noon Ash Wednesday service at Augustana Lutheran Church.

"Today is the day we begin again to know that God is our lover, that we are His beloved."

Like pastors and priests all over the Christian world yesterday, the Rev. William V. Montgomery performed the rituals of Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the start of the 40 days of Lent.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," he said as he dipped a thumb in ashes and traced crosses on the foreheads of the worshipers who knelt before the altar of the church at New Hampshire and V streets NW.

A score of people, most of them senior citizens, gathered for the noon service. "They would be afraid to come out for the night-time service," the pastor explained. "So we have the noon service for them and for people who want to come on their lunch hour."

Augustana, located just below Meridian Hill Park, has its root in Swedish Lutheranism but the membership of the church today is about evenly divided between blacks and whites from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Virtually all Christian churches observe Lent as a time for introspection, prayer, study and a deepening of the faith. Many churches in the Washington area have planned special lectures, peaching sessions and study groups that will extend through the 40-day period that ends on Easter Sunday. g

In the Roman Catholic Church, the rigorous rules of fasting and abstinence from eating meat during Lent have been eased but not abolished.

Catholics still are expected to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to fast -- that is to limit themselves to one full meal -- on those days.

While they are not prohibited from eating meat on most Fridays, as was the case in the past, Catholics are not supposed to eat meat on the Fridays of Lent.

Instead of encouraging Catholics to give up something for Lent, as in the past, the church now encourages of the faithful to do special acts of charity or spiritual devotion.

Catholic families in this country are encouraged to participate in Operation Rice Bowl, a program under which families are encouraged to eat one or more subsistence meals during the week and set aside the amount of money saved for a special collection. The proceeds of this project are designated for Catholic Relief Services to help people overseas.