Heads bowed in silent reflection as the pews of the Cathedral of the Ozarks were filled for the Ash Wednesday service at John Brown University. Both Catholic and non-Catholic students have begun the 40-day celebration of the season of Lent in reflection of its importance in daily life.
The Ash Wednesday ritual signifies human mortality and the ongoing need for repentance. For some of the University’s staff and students it represents something personal. In December, a new effort, through the student leadership staff, was created to further acknowledge the importance of the Lenten season.
Carlos Lopez Sandoval, a junior international business major from El Salvador approached Balzer, director of Christian formation, about this initiative. The project materialized to have more reflection and events to commemorate the significance of Lent.
Sandoval noticed how this season looked different in America and wanted to bring the importance he saw in the season to others.
“In our culture, you don’t get to know what Lent means until you are really immersed in the church. It is something that is ingrained in you, because your parents are making you go to Mass,” Sandoval said.
As a Catholic, Sandoval added that it was not until he was 12 or 13 that he personally began to be more involved in the church.
“It’s not until you get to the point that you make a decision for yourself to really understand what it is really about and it became something more than just what my parents wanted me to do,” Sandoval said.
To Sandoval, this season is, “a time of reflection and to sacrifice things, just as Jesus sacrificed for ourselves. It’s a time of contemplation and understanding what life really means.”
Balzer said, “Lent is a way of preparing ourselves for the passion of Jesus and identifying with Him in His death.”
She acknowledged that many Protestant and evangelical traditions do not observe the Church calendar, but she highlighted the importance of learning from the past and their traditions.
“We have so much to learn from the many centuries of Christians who have gone before us. It has been such an important part of worship and life and practice,” Balzer said, “This is new to many students; it is a new way to enrich your own walk with Christ, because the purpose of the Church calendar is to enter the story of salvation.”
Balzer believes that learning about this season is “a great way for people to engage in the story and view Scripture not just as a random series of events.”
For Sandoval, engaging in the story of Christ is very practical during this season in his country. His neighborhood begins their season of Lent traditionally with Ash Wednesday and continues with weekly services every Friday until Holy Week.
“In El Salvador we have a service called ‘via cruicis’ or ‘way of the cross’ and it walks you through the passion of Christ. You go through 14 stations that you pray and reflect at, with a specific event, and the last station is when Jesus dies,” Sandoval said.
“I remember walking through the streets of El Salvador in my neighborhood and each station is hosted at someone’s house. It is like a pilgrimage, and, during the whole process, there is a very passionate singing and acknowledging Jesus’ suffering over the 40 days,” he recalled.
On the last Friday before Holy Week there is a 15th station that goes through Christ’s crucifixion. For Sandoval the overall experience is very moving, but one thing that is different is how Holy Week is experienced in El Salvador.
“Holy Week is a big deal. School is suspended and some people even go to the beach. Most people take it as vacation time, but others that are very committed to the church attend all the services every day of Holy Week,” Sandoval said.
Roxan Gonzales, a senior at the University from Honduras said, “Back home Lent has become more of a vacation time rather than a spiritual time to reflect.”
“Everyone gets a week off, and it is supposed to be a week before Easter, but people don’t focus on spending time at church,” Gonzales said.
Coming from a Catholic background Gonzales witnessed her parents’ and grandparents’ traditions and devotion to the season of Lent.
Although she personally identifies as an evangelical or non-denominational, Gonzales believes that these next weeks need to be devoted to God and not for earthly pleasures.
She further added that people should focus less on the differences in the church. After attending her first Ash Wednesday service her learned Lent was time of fasting.
“I wish that my church did this and that it was not only exclusive to Catholics,” Gonzales said.
Joel Nizza, a senior digital media arts major, also attended his first Ash Wednesday service and had been fasting during past Lent seasons
“I really benefitted from going on media fasts in the past and refocusing on time with God,” Nizza said, “I think it is so good to explore different church traditions.”
Balzer encourages all people to experience the season of Lent and to realize the true meanings behind the season.
“In our culture it is hard to know what it means to be remorseful of our sins, but we can find joy in the releasing of control in our lives. It is a realigning ourselves with what is true and letting God come in, in new and powerful ways,” Balzer said.
Sandoval said there will be special events between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, such as a unique Vespers and a service of remembrance. On April 8th there will be reflection after the season ends to reflect and discover what students have learned.