Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Woodward: Ash Wednesday

Among the many spiritual adjustments that Lent encourages us to undertake, surely one of the most important--and yet one of the most antithetical to the spirit of modernity--is the re-ordering of priorities that should come with the contemplation of our mortality. It's an image of that mortality, after all, that we get smeared on our foreheads. And although the new liturgy allows a rather bland alternative commentary on the symbolism of the day--"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel"--the traditional (and in my opinion preferable) admonition makes clear just what the symbol means:

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.

The medieval theme of memento mori was not a morbid dwelling on death but an exhortation to remember, given the fact that each of us will die one day, the things that are eternally important. The ashes on our foreheads will do their job if they invite us to consider what is worth our time here on earth and what isn't. In the haunting line from T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday":

Teach us to care and not to care.