Another Ash Wednesday has come. Another day when some Protestants will say, "Oh, this is a Catholic observance." Another day when clergy like me will respond that it is a Christian observance, for all Christians. There is something inside us that does not love having ashes placed on our foreheads. What will other people think? How long do I have to leave them on my forehead? Does this mean that I have to give up something for Lent? All of these questions arise out of a deeper concern that we have about the whole idea of a spiritual journey for a protracted period of time.
So, exactly how do we do Lent? Although I began to observe a Lenten discipline in high school, I got away from it a bit during my college years. After all, central West Virginia was not a hotbed of liturgical fervor during my college experience. So, for me, it was during my first year of divinity school that Lent became a real experience for me. I had just come off the devastating break-up of a long term relationship, and I was lost in the wilderness, to be sure. The imposition of ashes was offered both in the divinity school chapel and in Duke Chapel. That year, I needed the ashes, a mark of penitence, a mark of something within me dying. What I had no way of knowing that Ash Wednesday was the way in which those ashes would also serve as a sign of a gradual re-birth within my spiritual self. Seeing my fellow grad-students wearing the sign of the cross made me feel, for the first time, that I was not alone on my journey. There was a concrete, visible attestation of the corporate nature of the journey, even though we all traveled it as individuals.
I did not have an epiphany or theophany that day; the veil of disappointment and despair did not lift suddenly, revealing the sun and blue skies. Sorry Hollywood. But something within me dared to begin to hope, but it would be a very gradual dawning. I recall that I wrote a piece of prose for the divinity school literary magazine the next year entitled "Ashes of Wednesday." One line in that work stands out all of these years later; the author refers to himself as a 'pitiable little fool who, more often than not, leaves his faith in the drawer next to his socks each morning.' Sometimes I am still that guy, which is why I observe Ash Wednesday. I get another chance to figure out this Christian pilgrimage, and another chance to meet friends and strangers on the journey. It is these friends and strangers, helping one another along the path, that bring us all home again. May you observe a holy and blessed Lenten season.