Ash Wednesday: The Oddly Popular Joy of Celebrating our Mortality

AshesAsh Wednesday is the most popular mass of the year – or so a few Catholic priests have told Joseph Laycock. In San Francisco, Episcopal priest Sara Miles has assumably continued her tradition of providing ashes to strangers on the street.  Why the popularity of wearing ashes to remind us of death?  Laycock thinks it might have something to do with making religious identities physical and tangible.  But Miles’ explanation is more profound:

“Why would anyone want to remember, much less celebrate, the fact that you’re going to die?

Because it’s the truth.

“So much effort goes into looking good, and working hard, and pretending we’re in charge of life and death,” says Will Hocker, a priest and hospital chaplain who notes that “even doctors” come to get ashes from him on Ash Wednesday. “What a relief to have a day when you’re just another person with a smudge of dirt on your head.”

Depending on the day, I find death terrifying or oddly liberating.  The terror part is pretty obvious.  The liberation comes from the sudden relativization of all my worries — after all, it will all pass away.  There is a certain, fleeing salvation in the notion of transience.  Thank God for this countercultural Christian holiday.


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