A Happy Ash Wednesday to all!
Well, it comes after carnival, so it seems appropriate that a post about Ash Wednesday would follow one about carnival. It seems inappropriate, though, to wish anyone a Happy Ash Wednesday. That would be to take the "Ash" out of Ash Wednesday, would it not? No, not happy.
For several years--many, I suppose--I duly submitted my forehead to be smudged with ashes once a year, as did, and do, many others. It seems I can't claim that this was or is a peculiarly Catholic tradition. Certain Protestant churches "celebrate" Ash Wednesday as well. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has no monopoly on the ritual of misery.
"Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." The Latin is: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” This is (or was?) the cheerful reminder dispensed along with ashes by priests on this insistently mournful day. From Genesis 3:19. We're reminded we're mortal. So, supposedly, were those in ancient Rome granted a triumph--memento mori they were told as they rode their chariot along the Sacred Way; remember you are mortal. It's a reminder that seemingly was ignored then, as it no doubt is ignored now, to the extent possible. Who wants to be reminded of their upcoming death?
Nobody, I would think. But it is apparently the function if not the delight of certain religions and certain of the religious to remind us of it nonetheless. One could say that this reminder is made only in the course of reminding us as well that our salvation, and eternal life, is nonetheless guaranteed to us by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, if only we believe in him. And so we celebrate Easter. If we don't believe in him, though, then we'll be among the dust burning in hell, if dust does indeed burn. Or so some would say, in any event. Thus, one could also say that the reminder serves as a warning of the horrible fate which awaits us when we die, unless...we repent, and change our evil ways, and believe. Then, death will have no sting. But will come, yes, but only as to the body.
It strikes me as strange, given the body-soul distinction made in Christianity, that relics of saints came to be given such importance, and were ascribed miraculous powers. Some saint or martyr's bone is revered, and causes the blind to see and the lame to walk. But why, if the soul has left the body? Was the saint in question so very holy that holiness seeped into his/her body?
I think the Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico is far less dreadful (literally) than such "reminders" of death as Ash Wednesday. Unsurprisingly, this event derives from a custom in place before the arrival of the Spanish. The dead are remembered and cherished. Those who participate are reminded of death, certainly, but also of life as lived. Those gone live again, or at least are treated as living; remembered as they were, and invited to participate in a family feast or celebration.
Even more significant is the fact that those living continue to live, and live with the dead and the knowledge of death. Death is a part of living, and so loses its sting in a far more real sense than it does when its sting is thought to dissipate from the promise of some existence after death, one that can only be imagined. The wise among the ancients, like the Stoics, thought death had no sting as well, and didn't fear it.
Fear of it is inspired when it's viewed not merely as an end, but also a beginning--of suffering. Death is a threat of sorts, now; the threat of hell and punishment if you don't do what you should do, think what you should think, in the craven system of morality that's been fostered here and elsewhere by those who think right and wrong are determined by divine command.
"Our life is what our thoughts make it." So says Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. So is our death.