Today is Ash Wednesday. Today you’ll see a strange sight: people walking around with smudges on their foreheads, like gray bindis over their third eyes, or like someone stubbed out a cigarette on them. These are people who have come from an Ash Wednesday service that begins the forty days of Lent.
Early in the service, ashes from burned palm fronds, leftovers from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, are placed on the worshipers’ foreheads. Sometimes the smudge looks like a small cross, sometimes it’s just a smudge. As the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
I never went in for the whole Lenten penitential/self-abnegation thing. For me, Ash Wednesday was more existential. It was a meditation about mortality, about our connection to the earth, about our union with everything that lives, about impermanence. Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
I also like that it comes the day after Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” the day of feasting before the traditional Lenten fast. I like that it’s the last day of the Carnival season, a heady Bacchanalia in most parts of the world. I especially like that “Carnival” is derived from the Latin carne vale: “Farewell, flesh!”—as apt an adieu to physical existence as it is to meat during the fast.
My private annual ritual always includes a reading of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday,” a poem that powerfully captures both my anxiety and my hope. It begins:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are . . . .
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.