Ash Wednesday chapel a reminder of Lent’s purpose

For many Christians, Lent is about giving up something delicious for 40 days as an exercise of willpower, and Ash Wednesday is the confident beginning of this fast before Hershey’s Special Dark bars start looking better and better. But at chapel this Wednesday, Feb. 18, Aminah Bradford, co-associate chaplain for residence life, called members of Calvin’s community to a different kind of Lent.

Bradford described picking up her daughter from school and seeing classes full of kids during naptime:

“My overwhelming sense is of jealousy,” Bradford said. “Oh, for naptime!”

Bradford explained that a “naptime” kind of rest—“restorative, sweet, pure”—is what Lent is supposed to make more possible for Christians. It is the same kind of “Sabbath rest” that groups across campus are pursuing in the Sabbath Bible study.

“But there’s this thing that steals that kind of delight from us,” Bradford said. “It’s sin—habitual or addictive sin especially … Sinning isn’t restful.”

Bradford challenged her listeners to use Lent as an opportunity to “fast on that thing that would take away your freedom to rest and delight on a Sabbath day.” Rather than a test of willpower or a renewal of a long-broken New Year’s resolution, Bradford called Lent a season of devotion, of seeking rest by turning away from sins.

After Bradford’s brief sermon, chapel attendees came forward and presented their foreheads or hands to have ashes applied to them in the shape of a cross. The chapel was quiet as students and faculty rose to receive ashes and then sat back down in prayerful mourning and reverence.

Ashes appear throughout the Bible as a symbol for suffering and sorrow, and they serve to remind worshipers of their mortality and sinfulness. Using ashes to observe the first day of Lent is traditionally associated with Catholic congregations, and its prevalence varies among Protestant circles, though 20th century ecumenical movements made it more common in non-Catholic churches.

As students — both new to Ash Wednesday and familiar with the tradition — were told to “go in peace and sin no more,” the normal post-chapel buzz of conversations and coat zippers began again, but this time most people were bearing the sign of the crosses. The crosses continued to fill Calvin’s campus for the rest of Wednesday, reminding students of Bradford’s vision of a Lent season that brings the freedom to delight.