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Columbia marks the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday services

A woman in a mask applies ashes to the forehead of another woman in a church.
EJ Haas
Ruth Frieler applies ashes to the forehead of a participant in the 7 a.m. Mass on Ash Wednesday at the St. Thomas More Newman Center on the University of Missouri campus.

If you see people wearing black marks on their foreheads Wednesday, it’s part of a religious rite that Catholics and some other Christian faiths have observed for centuries.

“Liturgically, the start of the penitential season of Lent,” said Fr. Dan Merz of the St. Thomas More Newman Center. “One of the main purposes of Lent is to renew and [revive] our baptismal promises.” Lent is about “renewing the fact that we belong to Christ.

“When it says repent, it means change your heart so as to follow more closely,” Merz said,

In the Ash Wednesday Mass, a priest smears black ash on the foreheads of the faithful as a reminder of their mortality and humility. It also serves as a renewal of their faith.

“The ashes that we trace on the foreheads are reminders to us, in the book of Genesis after Adam and Eve sinned, God said ‘You are dust and unto dust you will return.’ So that’s what we’re remembering: that all the things of this world, including you and our physical bodies, will pass away,” said Merz.

Another aspect of Ash Wednesday is fasting and abstaining from all meat. “The idea there is emptying ourselves of this world to create a space for God; you know, Jesus says in the gospel ‘Man does not live on bread alone,’” said Merz.

Catholics also choose a Lenten penance, giving up certain luxuries in recognition of Christ’s sacrifice.

MU sophomore Justin Fuller has been a Christian all his life but Catholic for the last two years. He attended a Mass in 2021, but says the nature of the procession was different due to COVID-19 precautions.

“Last year because of COVID, they didn’t put ashes on the foreheads; they put it — like, sprinkled it — on top of your hair… in its substance, it's still the same, but having that visible reminder is just so valuable and I like having the cross on the forehead back,” he said. “I think it's a powerful symbol.”

For Lent, Fuller plans to give up soda and social media, take cold showers, and pray for a full hour each day.

“I think [the student body] is a good witness of the faith but also [the cross is] kind of a reminder that death is a part of the human experience, and we have to be ready to face it at any moment,” he adds.

His friend and classmate Collin Jaegers says the ashen cross is “not supposed to be a ‘look at me’ thing. It’s supposed to be a sign of humility; it’s supposed to be a personal reverence of ‘Yes, I’m a sinner, I’m in need of God.’”

“It could be a way to kind of start a conversation about what is the purpose of life, and what are we here for as humans? What's our purpose?” says Fuller.