The 40-day journey through Lent to Easter begins tomorrow with services of prayer and penitence. Many who worship will have crosses traced on their foreheads, as the ancient words from the liturgy for this day are repeated, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” ELCA campus pastor Lloyd Kittlaus tells how college students make that journey.
As ELCA members go to church on Ash Wednesday, students on many campuses will do likewise. If recent patterns hold at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., where I serve as Lutheran campus pastor, they will do so in considerable numbers. Among these students will be some whom we have not seen in awhile and others whom we’ve not yet met.
The first opportunity of the day offered by University Lutheran, the campus congregation that is the ELCA’s ministry to Northwestern, will be a 20-minute service of confession and ashes, timed to allow students to participate and still get to their 9 a.m. classes. On the following Wednesdays, like many congregations, we will offer a soup-and-bread supper and then evening prayer. Students will lead both the liturgy and discussion of the Bible readings during these brief services.
One of the challenges of keeping Lent at Northwestern is the university’s quarter-system schedule, which means Lent always is cut in two by a week of winter-quarter exams and a week of spring break. Thus undergraduates miss at least one part and, in some cases, two of any theme that we develop. Some also will be absent from our services on Good Friday and Easter Day since they go home after Friday classes to be with family for the Easter celebration.
Despite such challenges we, too, approach Lent as a unitary season of preparing for Easter and annually find that this observance brings our largely student community several benefits. One is that more will become regular in daily Bible reading and prayer. Another is that some will be prompted to deepen their practice of self-denial and sacrifice, beyond what they have been accustomed to “giving up” for Lent.
An age-specific benefit can be the reminder of our mortality conveyed by the words spoken on Lent’s first day, as an ashen cross is traced upon their foreheads. Several students have reported that this reminder prompted their reconsidering the feelings of invincibility that too easily allow youth and young adults to engage in risky behaviors, with little thought to their potential consequences.
Lastly, in a context in which the experience of human diversity can be used to validate Lutherans’ reluctance to give witness to our faith, some students will become at least a bit more bold and forthcoming through some of the acts of faith in which they will have participated—wearing the ashes for the rest of the day on Ash Wednesday, joining in our Palm Sunday procession that starts on campus and walking the ecumenical Stations of the Cross around campus on Good Friday.
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