This post was originally published by The Finger Lakes Times (NY) as part of the weekly series, “Denim Spirit.”
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
That is the central motif of Ash Wednesday, today, which is the beginning of the Christian spiritual practice of Lent. Because Christianity was once the predominant religion in the United States, exposure to its practices and rituals was broad and deep. Now however, to the general public, the religion is an edifice – a shallow caricature known by its packaging but not its substance.
Someone who practices another religion, or is anti-religious, might read “once predominant religion” and scoff. Statistically Christianity is still the overwhelming majority religion. But in truth, the vast majority of those claiming to be Christian are in fact only tangentially involved – “cultural Christians.” Current statistical analysis of actual church attendance from week to week, estimates only eighteen percent of the population attends. But even church attendance is not an absolute indicator of deeper understanding.
I taught religion in a Jesuit college for five years, and most of my students had been raised in the Roman Catholic church and-or attended a parochial school. As a group, one could assume they would be well-versed in Christianity. However, their knowledge of their own denomination and the broader religion, was often limited to passive and perfunctory execution of rituals. Whatever their attendance practice had been, it provided them with no more understanding of Christian wisdom and spirituality than the Muslim, Jewish, or non-religious students.
Labeling someone a Christian whose exposure is limited to occasional public worship, is like calling the passenger in a car an auto mechanic. That is true for any religion, by the way. Public worship is the gravy, not meat and potatoes.
I mention it because Ash Wednesday seems to be as lightly understood inside the churches that practice it, as outside among those who do not. A smudge on the forehead is easy to lampoon but the meaning behind the ritual is profound and universal. So, I wince at the recent popularity of “Ashes to Go,” in which clergy stand in public spaces with a little tin of refined black ash and offer to mark the foreheads of those passing by. “Come get your hot, fresh ashes,” they might as well hawk, “skip all that fluff and just get the good stuff.”
“Ashes to Go” is another example of mistaking packaging for content.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It is about our mortality, because nothing intensifies our focus on life like death. Ashes to Go, or running into church to get “my ashes,” makes it all about the ritual while neglecting the substance.
Contemplating death offers us insights and perspective on our life. It is similar to standing beneath the night dome in a place where the canopy of stars and planets whisper to us of our own insignificance. Making room for intentional moments of reflection that lift us off the wagon tracks of our routine, is itself a spiritual practice. Every religion offers such moments on its annual calendar marking the seasons of the soul. “Come get your ashes,” mistakes the outward vestige for the deeper consciousness for which the ritual was intended to be a gate.
We are so allergic to death in this culture, that the funeral industry covers over every clod of dirt at the graveside with green plastic indoor-outdoor carpet. Heaven forbid we contend with “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Today is a day for getting intimate with our mortality, and then, to listen for the whispers we may need to hear.