We’ll see them throughout south Louisiana today — those little black smudges, on faces young or old, beautiful or plain, cheerful or solemn. They’re the ashes of Ash Wednesday, applied to remind the devout of their mortality at the start of Lent, a season of penance and reflection to prepare for Easter.
Reminders of mortality might seem beside the point given the recent headlines. News of war, crime and terrorism makes all too clear that life is fragile. But in so many other ways, our culture suggests that earthly life is forever. With the right vitamin supplement, diet plan, exercise machine or plastic surgeon, or so we’re led to believe, time can be cleverly talked out of its claim on us.
But the message of Ash Wednesday — one that should have resonance in secular society, too — is that even under the best of circumstances, none of us is here for very long.
It’s a reality perhaps best not dwelled upon very much, but mortality can, at the very least, form the beginning of wisdom. That’s why, we gather, books about how to achieve happiness are especially popular right now. A generation of Baby Boomers is aging, reaching that point when the calendar hints that one’s supply of years isn’t infinite. That deepening clarity underscores the importance of living life to its fullest.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are meant to mark everyone, regardless of class, income or status. No one, not even the richest or sexiest or most powerful, is immune from our shared vulnerability to death.
The knowledge of mortality is a humbling thing, of course, but our national life could probably use a little bit more humility these days. Reality TV tells us loudly and often that simply being ourselves — even and sometimes especially our worst selves – is worthy of attention. The selfie, that portable and effortless exercise in narcissism, is our national pastime. Online culture, which has done so much good in spreading news and insight around the world, also tempts us to think that all thoughts are worthy of an audience, simply because we thought them.
Vanity complicates our politics. Constructive compromise requires humility, and where it’s absent, governance degrades into a hundred fiefdoms of personal conceit. That pretty much describes the current stalemate in Washington, where pride perennially trumps the common good.
That’s why rituals of self-effacement such as Ash Wednesday serve a purpose beyond the church door. They’re an answer to ego, and one that seems needed now more than ever.