Note: This column originally appeared in The Daily on February 19, 2012. It is no longer extant, so I have republished it here.
When I was in divinity school, the light attendance at our Wednesday chapel services was a source of some concern and more humor — until Ash Wednesday. On the day that marks the beginning of the Christian liturgical season of Lent, our pious and dutiful cohort swelled with unknown students from across the university. They came to hear the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” spoken to each in turn, and to have their foreheads marked with ashes in the sign of the cross.
The enduring popularity of this religious day may seem like something of a mystery. On Wednesday, you’ll be able to recognize the people who have been reminded of their mortality by the Dickensian smudge on their brows. And not just mortality: The words and images of Ash Wednesday are meant to call the worshiper to the recognition and repentance of their sins as well. Why is it that a somber observance focused on death and guilt draws so many casual Christians and curious seekers alike?
As even the most committed New Atheist can tell you, death and guilt are recurring themes in the Bible. The line about returning to dust comes from Genesis, when God curses the man and the woman for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It echoes throughout the Old Testament as a symbol of the brevity and frailty of human life. “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord,” Abraham says in pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, “I who am but dust and ashes.” “You turn us back to dust,” the psalmist sings to God. Job’s friends, seeing his miserable condition, throw dust upon their heads.
Likewise, on Ash Wednesday we also confess and repent of our sins. “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” we say, quoting another psalm. “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.”
These big themes, death and guilt, come together in the imposition of those tell-tale ashes in the form of a cross on our foreheads. It’s one of the more striking and economical rituals that I know. Ashes represent mortality and mourning, the cross represents our need for grace and the humbling of our earthly pride and the forehead is the very throne of our personality, the home of our senses and thoughts. Whichever forgotten medieval monk or bishop introduced this poetic gesture into church worship has my admiration.
That is not to say, however, that Ash Wednesday commands universal respect among clergy. Some of us don’t like saying the “Remember you are dust” line and substitute “God bless you” instead. My Lutheran denomination has gradually softened the prayer of the day for Ash Wednesday, so that we are no longer “worthily lamenting our wretchedness” as our forebears did.
Not that long ago, contemplating mortality and feeling contrition for grave failings were considered noble pursuits. They were the themes of great literature and popular music alike. In our culture we have come, more often, to view these same experiences as neuroses. Grief is edging closer to being defined as a species of depression. Anxiety over the inevitability of death has become something to be resolved through a process ending in “acceptance,” as though being sundered from everyone and everything one loves is the sort of thing one can become good at.
Guilt fares no better. “In centuries past, people built moral systems” that “emphasized our sinfulness,” the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last year in reaction to what he called the “vanity” of commentators who imagined their own courageous responses to the alleged crimes at Penn State. Today, however, “we live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness.” To say, with the psalmist, “my sin is ever before me” is to risk being labeled obsessive.
The denial of death and guilt has become useful to us, even necessary. Ash Wednesday stands out, then, as a brutally frank reminder of things we have halfway persuaded ourselves aren’t true — that our lives are brief and that we need grace. It’s a reminder people seem to crave. I’ve made empty churches echo with the news that God embraces and forgives, but when the day comes to be marked with the sign of mourning and repentance, the pews are suddenly full. It suggests to me that we haven’t quite succeeded in compartmentalizing all our problems into the box of pathology. We might not believe in guilt, but we sure like to confess things, whether in memoirs or on talk shows. We might want to keep funeral homes zoned out of our neighborhoods, but we revel in the vicarious death offered by 3-D horror films and first-person video games.
Perhaps it’s these repressed sentiments that draw people to the solemn rituals of Ash Wednesday. In them we experience a vocabulary for our legitimate fears of mortality and our nagging suspicion that we aren’t quite what we should be. And perhaps more importantly, these experiences are overcome not with acceptance or closure, but with something more dramatically hopeful. “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit,” the church sings in that same brutally honest psalm. The point of all those smudged foreheads is not to linger in the shadow of death, but to keep walking through it.