The Kickoff to the Season of Lent

U.S. Army Sgt. Courtney Topper, 1436th Engineer Company, 507th Engineer Battalion, Michigan National Guard, receives ashes from Air Force Lt. Col. Brian J. McNamara, a chaplain with the 106th Rescue Wing, New York National Guard, during shift on Ash Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 17, 2021. The National Guard has been requested to continue supporting federal law enforcement agencies with security, communications, medical evacuation, logistics, and safety support to state, district and federal agencies through mid-March. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Ashley Goodwin)

Michigan National Guard

Story by 2nd Lt. Ashley Goodwin

WASHINGTON.– “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian McNamara said this prayer as he applied ashes to the foreheads of National Guardsmen at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., Feb. 17, 2021, for Ash Wednesday.

Lent, which began today and continues for 40 days through Easter, is recognized as a time of prayer and repentance.

“Ash Wednesday is the kickoff to the season of Lent,” McNamara explains. “It commemorates the 40 days that Christ spent in the desert leading up to holy week, which is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.”

The ashes are derived from palm leaves that were saved from the previous year.

“People bring the palm back and we burn it,” said McNamara. “We pulverize the palms, then use them for the ashes.”

McNamara explained that wearing ashes was a sign of penance in the old testament. Some would sit in the ashes as a sign of penance he said.

“I describe the spiritual life as a marathon,” said McNamara. “But even in a marathon, sometimes you sprint. Lent is a time that we can sprint. A lot of places have more spiritual opportunities and retreats, but for the six weeks we can sprint a little bit.”

McNamara is a chaplain at the 106th Rescue Wing, New York National Guard, in Westhampton Beach, New York. He arrived in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 7, 2021.

This is an historic and unprecedented operation with National Guard units from 20 states and territories converging on the nation’s capital. Since the inauguration, over 26,000 servicemembers, including both the Army and Air National Guard, representing several different military occupational specialties, have served in Washington.

Maj. Jim Hall, a chaplain with the Michigan National Guard, escorted McNamara on his morning rounds through the U.S. Capitol grounds. Soldiers from the 1436th Engineer Company, 507th Engineer Battalion, Michigan National Guard were the first of many they encountered during the day.

“The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps doctrine requires chaplains to perform or provide religious support and services to all DOD personnel,” explained Hall. “Providing services and sacraments to Catholic Soldiers falls directly into these requirements.”

Hall also shared, “Non-Catholic chaplains must seek out available Catholic Priests or Catholic Lay Leaders to provide services such as ash distribution to catholic Soldiers. The DC National Guard’s Chaplain’s office made it very easy by providing Chaplain McNamara for area support.”

“There are other chaplains here from different denominations,” explains McNamara. “But I am the only catholic priest on this mission.”

He holds two services of mass every Sunday with the intent of scheduling more to support additional troops through multiple shifts.

Before departing from each Soldier, McNamara said, “Don’t forget to call your mother and tell her you received ashes today.” With smiles behind their masks, each Soldier agreed to do so.

“It was a great opportunity to serve alongside someone with as much zeal, passion, and love for our service members as Chaplain McNamara,” Hall added.

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