Ash Wednesday Reveals Campus Religious Climate

By David Ullmann

On Wednesday March 5, the Christian holiday of Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, a six-week long period of discipline and devotion.  Ash Wednesday emphasizes human mortality and Lent traditionally asks observers to take up a specific discipline.  Many students describe this period as a specially reflective and humbling experience, one that can both connect students with their faithful traditions from home or add unique challenges and significance in a college environment.

In honor of the holiday, Chaplain Laurie Jordan ran a service at Mead Chapel that required her to respect the varied styles of worship within the Christian tradition, unlike most church services that cater to a specific denomination.

“I try to use the basics, prior to all the splits in Christianity,” said Jordan. “So it’s not really dealing with the tender breaking points.”

The service included a Psalm of Confession, when the congregation asks God to absolve their sins, A Litany of Penitence, when sins are detailed with greater specificity, a Great Thanksgiving, when the congregation thanks the lord for his gifts, the Breaking of Bred, a communion, and an organ postlude.

Jordan expressed particular enthusiasm for one defining ceremonial practices of Ash Wednesday — the imposition of Ashes — when the chaplain draws a cross with ashes over one’s forehead and recites, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”  According to Jordan, this reminder can be particularly important for students.

“The ashes represents that you may feel young and vital and invincible.  But every one of us is going to die one day and our bodies are either going to be burned or decayed,” said Jordan.

Blake Harper ’15, whose father is a priest and is involved in numerous religious life organizations on campus, echoes a similar sentiment.

“Sometimes you can feel like on the college on the hill you are on top of the world,” said Harper. “It is a humbling experience [on] Ash Wednesday just to know how small we are.”   He added that this notion uplifts not discourages him.

After the service, many students leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day.

Blake reports seeing many people he did not know were observant Christians with the ashes.

“It’s just a time when people are not afraid to express their religious identity,” said Harper.

Matthew Blake ’16.5 claims many people who are not familiar with Christianity ask him questions about Lent.

“I’ve had to do a lot of translating,” said Blake. “I’ve had to express what it means to be a Christian to other people and that has made me more reflective on what it means to be a Christian.”

After Ash Wednesday, Christians enter Lent, a time when many observers fast, deny themselves a particular luxury and involve themselves with various religious practices.

Shannon Reinert ’15, who leads the Newman Catholic Student Organization, cited desserts and makeup as examples of indulgences she gave up.

Gregory Markowitz ’15 said that he was not raised religious but has became a more involved Christian while on campus and was officially accepted into the catholic church last summer. Last year, he did not attend Ash Wednesday service but fasted every Wednesday and Friday, ate exclusively vegetarian foods, and tried to meet someone new every day during Lent.

“I was constantly asking myself ‘why am I doing this…to please God,” Marowitz said. “So when you’re hungry, it’s a constant reminder.”

Some do not give something up but add another ritual into their routine.

According to Faith Whang ’15, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship plans to practice a daily fifteen minute pray period but she expresses concerns over maintaining this routine on campus.

“When you’re at Middlebury, you’re in this bubble where everything is about you,” said Whang, “I’ve noticed that even trying to take a little piece of the day away from me is hard.”

She refers to a popular axiom while referring to the struggles of maintaining her faith at school.

“Someone told me freshman year that college is three things: sleep, study, and social life and you can only do two.  Adding faith is like a fourth thing,” Whang said.

Like Whang, Harper does not give up a specific luxury but adds a new ritual to his day: devotional readings with friends.

“It is a time to think about the way we spend our time, think about the way we use our resources, think about the way we treat each other,” Harper said.

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