Once a year, students and faculty alike take off their beanies and caps and appear sporting a different kind of headwear: a dark, ashy cross smeared on their foreheads. While those who do not celebrate may think that these individuals are part of some kind of strange cult, they are observing Ash Wednesday, an important marker for the beginning of a reflective time for Christians and Catholics.
Always 46 days before Easter, Ash Wednesday signifies the start of the Lenten season, which is the solemn remembrance of the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert before his Crucifixion. The three pillars of Lent are fasting, prayer and almsgiving, and members of the Church usually sacrifice something during Lent to honor Jesus dying for humanity. However, one can also take something on: a designated prayer time can prompt internal reflection or volunteering at a nonprofit organization allows an individual to contribute to their society. Each individual has a specific tradition which can vary from year to year.
Father Tim Danaher at Aquinas House, Dartmouth’s Catholic Student Center, acknowledges the anxiety that accompanies the bleak Lenten season. He reflected upon Lent and what it means for us as a community.
“If we are willing to be disciplined for physical health, I think all the more for spiritual health,” Father Danaher said. “The Church’s mindset is that we will always neglect that sum which is why we have a holy season every year saying, in modern rendering, ‘C’mon, let’s go!’”
Perhaps during your Lenten season, you may start listening to Father Danaher’s podcast with the lovely Elizabeth Hadley ’23. Their podcast, “Talking Over Guests,” is available on Spotify. Its humorous episodes also provide moments of deeper reflection and time to meditate on what is important in life. Personally, what I love about Lent is that it is a time period dedicated to growth: sacrifice might not be the right avenue for you, but adding something to your daily practice may encourage individual development.
During an Ash Wednesday service, the priest will bless the ashes made from palm leaves, typically the ones used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. Each member of the community will approach the altar and receive the ashes on their foreheads in the sign of the cross. When I was little, my peers and I would intently analyze the ashes upon my foreheads. Perhaps that is still the case at Dartmouth? I will report back after mass on Wednesday. This tradition symbolizes the famous biblical teaching, “remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” It is an incredibly humbling experience and prompts individuals to reflect internally and assess the state of their hearts.
“It’s a yearly reminder to reconnect with God and return to God for forty days and beyond,” Annaliese OuYang ’23 said, reflecting upon receiving the ashes.
During our discussion of Mardi Gras king’s cake, Alex Salyer ’24 recalled practicing Lent on Dartmouth’s campus. She noted that it can be difficult to remain disciplined, such as refraining from dessert during campus celebrations after giving up treats. Is it possible to sacrifice Still North hot chocolate gently poured into ceramic mugs topped with whipped cream? We shall see. While these aspects of Lent can be challenging, the religious groups on campus make the lives of students who want to practice their faith much easier.
When thinking about managing religious practices with academic pressures, Ryan Proulx ’25 said, “I’m glad we have different mass times to receive ashes so we can balance this with our school committments.”
Aquinas House will host mass at noon and 5 p.m. on Ash Wednesday. Along with AQ, ashes will be distributed at the Collis Center, the Church of Christ, Our Savior Lutheran Church and Student Center and St. Thomas Episcopal Church. To-go options will also be available for students who are unable to attend any service. Spiritual leaders want to make these traditions accessible for students, regardless of their schedules or other time commitments.
After attending Catholic school my entire life, it is jarring to not have a school-designated time to observe these events. “You don’t have Good Friday off?” my parents asked me when planning for Easter. Dartmouth acknowledges that students may have religious commitments and that time off may be necessary, but I am still conflicted. I may attend class regardless, as I do not want to miss all the material that will be taught that day. These traditions, however, are important to respect and remember.
I will have to miss a language drill to attend an Ash Wednesday service. Salyer also noted that she will be late to her evening class because of the distribution of ashes. Some of my peers have already organized their religious exemption for the upcoming days of spiritual observance, and many students have had positive experiences seeking accommodations, cultivating a spiritual community amongst their peers.
“On Dartmouth’s secular campus, we are lucky to have a very strong Catholic and Christian community with which we celebrate these days,” said Jack Brustkern ’25. “I’m incredibly grateful for this.”
While Lent can be difficult, it is impermanent. I can only imagine the difficulty of fasting in the desert for such an extended period of time. Holy Week will soon enough be upon us, beginning with Palm Sunday, followed by the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, remembering the Crucifixion on Friday and finally celebrating Easter. The Lenten season officially ends with the arrival of Easter Sunday. On this day, Catholics and Christians rejoice in Jesus’s Resurrection and eternal life. It is a wonderful time to gather with family and friends, appreciating life’s blessings during the springtime.