Ash Wednesday

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.

Categories: Christianity, Death, Great Quotes, Holidays | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday

  1. indigo bunting


  2. I have someone follow behind me, whispering, “Thou art mortal. Thou art mortal.”

    But I’m rather sure it’s just me.

    But speak repentance now, if you’ll be heard:
Tomorrow will be too late for such a word.
    —King Alfred

  3. Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

    MARGARET, are you grieving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?
    Leaves, like the things of man, you
    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
    Ah! as the heart grows older
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
    And yet you will weep and know why.
    Now no matter, child, the name:
    Sorrow’s springs are the same.
    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
    What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
    It is the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

  4. In my favorite scene from Evelyn Waugh’s Bridehead Revisited, Charles discovers that Sebastian keeps in his rooms a skull with these words inscribed on its forehead: Et In Arcadia Ego. “Even in Arcadia am I”: even though you’re now enjoying all the pleasures of life on earth, remember that I, Death, am always nearby.

  5. indigo bunting

    Oh, do help me get this limerick right, because I think there’s something I’m not remembering correctly:

    There once was a woman from Kent
    Who gave up the sex act for Lent.
    Although she kept feigning
    She liked the abstaining,
    She was eager to come when Lent went.

  6. I think you nailed it!

  7. Jennie

    Please tell me you didn’t give up blogging for Lent!

  8. indigo bunting

    Good point, Jennie.

  9. Point taken, both of you. I’ve just posted a new leg of The Big Trip.

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