By Sophie Whorf, For The Miami Student
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, when members of the Catholic Church mindfully prepare Easter. While Lent has historically called for a 40–day fast, today it is common for participants to relinquish a frequent, often material, habit or behavior in an effort to bring them closer to their faith (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).
This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Feb. 10. The 7:00 p.m. Mass at St. Mary Church in Oxford was overflowing as students, families and the other members of the local community filled the pews and lined the walls of the sanctuary to receive the emblematic cross of ashes on their forehead, acknowledging their humility and commitment to the reflective season ahead.
“It’s not a day of obligation, yet I see more people on this day then I do on some days of obligation,” said Father Jeffrey Silver, St. Mary’s priest. “We [the Catholic Church] always kid that whenever you give away anything free, even if it’s dirt, they will come.”
According to Silver, days of obligation include every Sunday and a series of holy days recognized in the Catholic religion. Junior Jack O’Brien believes that, despite the fact that Ash Wednesday is not a required day, its significance is especially meaningful for those preparing for the season of Lent.
“I’ve always seen Lent as a time to take a step back from the busyness of life. It’s a good time to reflect on who you are and set a goal for yourself,” said O’Brien. “I think a good way to get in that mindset is to go to Mass [on Ash Wednesday] and get on the right track.”
Silver agrees that Ash Wednesday acts as a sort of catharsis for many Catholics.
“Lent has always had a kind of draw for people. It does encourage you to think that life is something to live reflectively,” said Silver. “I think people like the symbolism of the ashes and the somberness of beginning the season [of Lent].”
Junior Sarah Custenboarder admits that while she doesn’t attend Mass every Sunday, Ash Wednesday holds a special significance for her as well.
“I probably attend St. Mary’s twice a semester, but at home I go [to Mass] every Sunday with my dad,” said Custenboarder. “I was planning to go [to Ash Wednesday Mass] but I have class. If I were home, I think I would go. I grew up going with my family, so it just feels right to me to go with my family.”
As far as the question of what exactly to give up during Lent, Custenboarder believes that the focus is more about the principle of the tradition, rather than the renounced action itself.
“Lent is about making sacrifices like Jesus did. It’s not so much about what you give up but more about understanding why you’re giving it up,” said Custenboarder.
O’Brien agrees with Custenboarder’s sentiment.
“It’s important to give something up that’s going to be difficult, but at the same time will make you a better person. It’s supposed to be hard for you. It’s a chance for you to pray,” said O’Brien.
Father Jeff says in addition to understanding the purpose behind the religious observance, Lent is also a chance for people to view life from a novel, humbling perspective.
“As I’ve gotten older, I realize why we give things up [for Lent]. One reason is to encourage solidarity with those who do not have things,” said Silver. “Fasting shows solidarity with the hungry.”
Father Jeff highlighted the issue of hunger in the local community, noting how several Oxford residents work full-time jobs, yet still live below the poverty line. He commented on how a portion of students at Talawanda High School are on a reduced lunch program, meaning that their families do not have the financial means to afford a regularly priced lunch.
Silver says the spike in church attendance on Ash Wednesday presents a unique window of opportunity to bring much-needed awareness to these pressing, local issues of hunger and need.
“If I have a purpose in preaching in Lent, it is to raise consciousness of the needs in the local community and the international community,” said Silver. “We may have different resources and blessings, but we are all equal in our creation.”