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Campus Ministry

Reflections on Ash Wednesday 2021

By Ellen Garmann, Associate Director of Campus Ministry-Liturgy

As the liturgical season of Lent approaches for Catholics, we embrace the perennial reminders of our humanity and Jesus’ temptation in the desert through the imagery of dust and sand. Catholics begin on Ash Wednesday with the call, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and then continue with the Lenten Sunday Gospel cycle hearing of Jesus’ 40 day trek into the desert.

In many ways, though, we never came out of last year’s “trip” into the desert. The doors to the Chapel were shut after the First Sunday of Lent last year, and haven’t been open in the same way since. Attendance has been restricted. Ritual practices are different. Baptismal fonts in our Archdiocese have been literally dry for a year, and even Holy Water stoups at the doors of Churches-- a common place for Catholics to cross themselves and recall their baptisms-- have remained empty. For a faith that embraces what we can see, touch, smell, taste, and hear as expressions of what we believe, it is no wonder we might be feeling parched after so much time without water! 

Ash Wednesday is February 17th, and there are both Masses (with communion) and Services of the Word with ashes (without communion) offered on campus that day. This is a good opportunity to return to worship if you’ve been away, and to invite others to join you as we enter the Lenten season. The schedule, links to register, and other Lenten prayer opportunities can be found on the Campus Ministry website.

 In the United States, the experience of Ash Wednesday may seem different this year. The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments has issued a note this year instructing that ashes are to be sprinkled on the heads of Catholics, instead of being traced on the forehead in a cross as is traditionally done here. At UD, we will follow this guidance from the Vatican, which was affirmed by our Archbishop. All who come to Catholic worship services will have ashes sprinkled on the crown of their heads.  

As a Catholic liturgist who delights in traditions which weave together the past and the present, I’m interested to experience this new-to-me ritual for three reasons. First, it is a practice that has roots in the tradition of public repentance in the early Church, when sinners would put on itchy sackcloth and throw hot ashes on themselves to prove how truly sorry they were. Second, it is tied into a long ritual tradition in the Church, with accounts of ashes being “sprinkled” onto heads in Lent going back nearly 1,000 years, and it remains the prevailing method in Italy and Poland even today. Finally, I’m approaching the experience with a sense of wonder. As I may find stray ashes in my hair, towel, or coat, they might serve as a memento mori--a reminder of the inevitability of death-- which has never been on my mind more than it has been in the last year. It seems fitting for my Catholic faith, which believes in sacramental signs, to place that before me in such a real way this year. 

This year, you are invited to journey “Into the Wilderness” to encounter God as we return, receive, and renew in this Lenten Season. Campus Ministry is ready with retreats, spiritual companions, reconciliation, worship, small groups, and much more as we encounter this Lent. May this Lent, which has its etymological root in the Old English word for Spring season, be for us a true season of change, growth, and hope in the joy that is to come. 

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