When the comedian Stephen Colbert appeared, one Ash Wednesday, on his late-night television show with ashes marking his forehead, I felt a sense of communion.
He’s one of my tribe, I thought. Colbert is a well-known Catholic. He even invited Jesuit Father James Martin to serve as the unofficial “chaplain” to his Comedy Central program.
But you don’t have to be a celebrity to evince solidarity on Ash Wednesday. Someone at the desk next to yours, perhaps, or the clerk in the supermarket line, each bearing the telltale sign of camaraderie that announces each as a fellow pilgrim taking those first tentative steps on a journey we share.
Maybe that’s why I love Ash Wednesday, and I’m not alone. Churches are absolutely packed on Ash Wednesday. It’s always been a deep puzzlement to me that churches are actually more crowded on Ash Wednesday than they are for the services of the Easter triduum.
To me, there are no more stirring liturgies than these three, which celebrate the central mystery of our salvation. And yet, for sheer devotion, nothing draws people in like Ash Wednesday.
Someone suggested once that Catholics like Ash Wednesday because they “get” something at Mass — a telltale smudge that proclaims their faith.
But every Mass offers us the ultimate “get” — the Eucharist. Although it’s not something we tangibly show the world, its abundant grace should triumph over a mere splotch that someone — not one of your tribe — will inevitably point to during the day and say helpfully, “You have some dirt on your forehead.”
Here’s my theory on Ash Wednesday, and here’s why I value the day.
I see Ash Wednesday as the beginning of a pilgrimage, my personal journey, but one I share liturgically and spiritually with more than a billion worldwide pilgrims. I’ve laced up my hiking boots, I’ve made my resolutions, I have my hope of making it to the finish line. And there is a finish line, folks. Hey, this is a mere 40 days, doable and measurable.
That smudge on my forehead is like that first bit of dust and mud on my hiking boots. I’m on the way.
When I was a child, the words I heard were bleak — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Perhaps thinking we need a little more encouragement than that, the church now offers an alternative, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Either way, those words ignite us like the opening gun at a race. We’re off. A pilgrimage has begun.
And we all begin it with conviction. But pilgrimages are tough. Ask those who have walked the Camino de Santiago, that famous Christian trek made famous in the movie “The Way.” It’s a journey full of blisters, fatigue, setbacks and sometimes failure. Sometimes people drop out along the way, and those that make it to the end may look back ruefully on a difficult journey.
So it is, often, with Lent. The good intentions and firm resolutions of Ash Wednesday clash with our busy lives and our imperfections. No one makes a perfect Lent, whatever that means. No one reaches some kind of spiritual peak every step of this journey.
Maybe that’s why some drop out along the path. We set our goals very high, forgetting that Jesus is interested in our weakness and our need, not just our supposed strengths and victories.
So on Ash Wednesday, I’ll have a plan. How will I grow closer to Jesus during Lent? That’s the only question. I will try to have a modest, doable goal for each of the three pillars of Lent — prayer, penance, almsgiving. Perhaps I’ll keep a little journal to reflect my progress. If I slip up — and we all will — I’ll begin again.
I will prepare to have my heart cracked open — and prepare for a blister or two along the way.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.