Wednesday, February 17


From the Archives: Set Apart: A Meditation on Ash Wednesday

An oldie but a goodie, written one Ash Wednesday during my New York years. I hope you will forgive us going into reruns for the occasion:

There is a deep, dark black smudge the size of a thumbprint on my forehead, which makes me look even paler than usual. It is more of a dot than a cross, though if you look carefully you can see the transverse stroke. The effect is of a particularly morbid boddhisava. I've been wandering around the city with this thing since this morning. Nobody else in the office has got, one, not even the other Catholics, who will probably get their ashes in the evening, if they go at all. I've not gotten many strange looks, though, maybe because it blends in with my hair.

I have, with a mixture of curiosity and vanity, checked myself in the mirror at least once to see if it's still there, and it is, big and black. On one level, I know my little prideful "Super Catholic" moments of self-examination--the bathroom mirror, the brass of a doctor's nameplate-- are going against today's pericope to not "disfigure [your] faces so as to show others that [you] are fasting" in taking a little perverse pride in this last vestige of the more severe and straightforward Lent of ages long past. The Church clearly sees no contradiction with our call to "put oil on your head and wash your face," with this ancient penitential practice--otherwise She wouldn't have picked that reading in the first place. There's a world of difference between a ceremonial smudge and purposefully neglecting to bathe just to give off an appropriately holy aroma.

I'm not saying it doesn't cause more than a justifiable double-take, but sometimes we're too quick to jump on the inconsistency bandwagon about things like this--about the two creations of man in Genesis, about calling priests Father, about Christ's cousins, sisters and aunts, about what the heck to do with Mary, looming disconcertingly large to our skittish Protestant brethren--forgetting the Church has been there from the start, sifting scripture, defining canons, shaping culture, and She's heard it all before. It's all of a piece.

(For the record, aspiring professional fasters sometimes applied makeup to look hollow-eyed and pulled long faces for maximum pathetic affect in Christ's day.)

Chesterton once imagined a long procession of mysterious priests with their strangely-shaped mitres, hooked croziers, their incense and bells, and their sacred books--what possesses us to leap upon them, disregarding everything else, and seize the Bible from their hands, crying out for sola scriptura, when they, with all their antique ways of mind and worship, were the first to call it sacred? There's always a deeper logic there, if we dig, or if we simply choose to trust in the vast and occasionally cobwebby mansion that is both Tradition and tradition. Public penitence--whether flamboyantly physical or merely simply passing on the cheesecake--is part of the Catholic landscape, and the Catholic imagination. (And I won't pretend that can't get disturbing sometimes, but there it is, no apologies--though the Church has always stressed moderation). We're no angels. We're not supposed to be. While the best thing is a chastened soul, sometimes the only way to get there is via the body. No dessert menus, thanks. Check, please?

Still, as with all great art--and the corpus of the liturgy is truly the highest art--there's a dramatic tension between our outward ashes and the call to rend our hearts rather than our garments. Perhaps on one level, it's the oddity of our American praxis. In Italy, rather than New York, the marks on our foreheads--giant schmutzes or tiny daubs--do get odd and even frightened looks. A friend of mine once got smeared, American-style, at Santa Suzanna in Rome, and came out to find the rest of the city still pagan and brazenly bare-foreheaded. Turns out in Italy, they merely give you a dusting on the top of the head with the old Adam.

So many subspecies of ashen crosses. Heading to church in the grey morning, I see a couple in comfortable middle-age with faded smudges heading out the other way, the balding gentleman sports a vague squiggle that could almost be Arabic calligraphy. I spot a well-dressed, undersized Rory Gilmore clone in Grand Central, a gigantic trapezoidal cross filling her little forehead. An old man with grey-black whisps who could have been Indian, Black or a dozen other ethnicities, a generic American everyman. A blonde young walkure, all icy-white and gold, with a reticent but crisp black tilak smack in the center. The priests up at the altar today, crisp, with the polished air of Opus Dei, haven't gotten theirs yet. Do they do each other?

John Zmirak, with his usual wit, labels today "Catholic Mating Identification Day," and includes a recipe for a helpful dish called "Hey, I think You're Kind of Hot" Cross Buns. I will admit to having been distracted at times past by a coy lass or two with this anti-sign of Cain on her brow, but "Hey, we both have the same black smudge on our forehead" an even less successful subway pickup line than the last one I heard recounted by a female friend, "Hey, isn't that AM New York you're reading?" (The equivalent of asking the gal next to you in Coach if she's a fan of Skymall.)

But maybe he's on to something. In one of the prophet Ezechiel's visions, he receives the call to "Mark Thau [the letter T, Greek Tau, Hebrew Tav] upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof," marking them as the saved, free from the impending doom of God's destroying angels. The Tav--the origins of today's Tau cross--in time became a symbol of Judaism a little before the time of Jesus, eventually adhering itself to the centinarian Anthony the Abbot and the Franciscans. The Apocalypse speaks in a similar way of the seal of the living God saving His people from destruction. The blood of Passover--also said to be cruciform--is probably at the back of all of this. It is no coincidence Our Lord ended up on a cross.

(I'm told in New York, the smudge doesn't really turn heads; just like random heathens turn up on Palm Sunday for freebees, sometimes an occasional Muslim or Jew slips in to get smudged. St. Agnes finds itself so popular on this fast-day that they have priests in the vestibule distributing ashes to folks coming in off the street. Other denominations imitate us. The Anglicans have their Solemn Liturgy of Ash Wednesday with all the usual choral trimmings, and even the Presbyterians--never one for mid-week liturgics--engage in a bit of smearing. Subsconsciously, we all want to be Catholic.)

I've got this black smudge on my brow, and it says I belong to God, whether I want to, or not. On the purely social level, this may get you stared at like a circus freak (especially in the South, where I come from, and the traditional white ethnics of Catholicism are comparatively thin on the ground), you might as well have a gigantic target on your back--hardly the sort of pats-on-the-back the extravagant hunger artists of Christ's day were looking for.

But beyond that it reminds us we're set apart, and we're supposed to behave that way. No shoving in the subway, no f-bombs, no "Hey, I'm walking here," no stuffing your face when you're supposed to be fasting, no surreptitious ogling of the espresso boy or the cute brunette down at the front of the bus (unless, I suppose, they've got the mark on them, too, and then, gents, please, keep it above the shoulders and ladies--well, I don't know where you look anyway, so just behave yourselves). It reminds you your name is Christian, your surname Catholic, and you're supposed to act that way. It's a uniform. For one day a year, you haven't got a choice in the matter, or you bring the whole Church in on your tacky behavior.

For one day you get to feel the way priests feel all day long under those collars of theirs. It's a bit humbling, isn't it?

One early Church Father, of a Platonist bent--perhaps Clement of Alexandria, I forget--once tried to sell Christianity to his proto-post-modern pagan audience by explaining of the exquisite manners and civic virtue of the ideal Christian--no burping gluttony, no hurtful jokes, no getting the help pregnant. Today's sybarites aren't much different from his audience--though their table manners are worse, and nobody knows how to fold a toga anymore. But they do respond to kindness. Don't disgrace the uniform today.

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