Today, as you may have realized from seeing more than a few folks walking around town with a black greasy cross smeared across their forehead (looking either proudly pious, if they’re in a religiously conservative area like West Michigan, where I’m originally from; or sheepishly apologetic that they actually kinda still maybe believe or at least find a little bit of value in this church stuff, if they’re in a major urban area like Chicago, where I currently live), is Ash Wednesday.
Since I’ve been old enough to formulate opinions about such things, I’ve always been fascinated by Ash Wednesday and its dual truths. It is a religious holiday whose principal act, the application of ashes on the forehead while being told, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” or something similar, is centered on the certitude of our impending death, yet is also, as Debra Dean Murphy points out at Religion Dispatches, an exhortation to live.
Both are crucially important–focusing merely on one but not the other leaves you without a complete vision of the reality of the world, and probably, whether sooner or later, desperate for some Paxil. But I’m particularly interested in the former, the talk of death.
Where else in this culture do we hear that we are dust, and to dust we shall return? Where else are we told explicitly, without any hint of skirting or tiptoeing around the issue, that we are mortal, that we will die, that our most fervent hopes and strident efforts and shrill protestations will never be enough to avoid the ugly reality of death?
Almost nowhere. In fact, we hear the opposite.
The implicit message in much of American culture is that we don’t have to be dust–we can be immortal. All we have to do is land a prestigious job, or clothe ourselves in high-end fashion, or read the right books, or lose just another ten pounds, or fix our crooked nose with some plastic surgery, or straighten out our family life to mirror the picture-perfect families we see on television.
Americans hear these messages, these implicit cultural nudgings that death can be cheated if we just try hard enough (or at least fill our lives with enough noise that we don’t have to think it), and we run with them. We work more hours and fight harder for promotions, obsess over own status and that of our children, purchase more gadgets and buy more crap we can’t afford, go on more diets and buy more magical shoes that promise to tone our posteriors, use more beauty products and undergo more plastic surgery, wave more flags and buy more and bigger weapons than most any other country in the world–all in an effort to avoid life’s most painful truth, that we are merely dust.
Deep down, we all know we’re dust, and to dust we shall return. But when we slow down enough to truly consider that fact–when we cut out the non-stop noise we fill our lives with, from iPods and talk radio to our scurrying from one task to another at work and at home, that prevents us from ever having the chance to reflect on the reality of our pending death and broken selves and overall cosmic puniness–it’s terrifying.
It throws our entire existence into question. It raises uncomfortable thoughts about those tasks we fill our lives with: What’s the point of running from aging through Botox and liposuction if my eventual succumbing to aging is unavoidable? Why am I so obsessed with others’ assessments of my intellect and beauty and status when all those things will someday wither away into nothingness?
We have an infinite number of ways that we as individuals and as a society try to flee the cruel, tragic certainty of death. We secretly hope that somehow we can stop death in its tracks, and all of our racing to evade its grasp won’t be for naught–that we as intelligent, rational, capable humans can have the last word.
But Ash Wednesday reminds us that we don’t. No matter our intellect, no matter our status, no matter our strivings, every one of us will hear the same unavoidable, soul-rattling truth that death will win out over anything we’re capable of: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Christianity doesn’t argue that death’s word is final, of course–there’s that whole thing about that Jesus guy. But it does insist to us that whatever we as individuals are able to accomplish and achieve and perfect is not final. And there aren’t too many other institutions in the U.S. (including, it should be noted, quite a few churches themselves) that are willing to go there. Which is why I’m a big fan of Ash Wednesday.