Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Don't get it in my eye...

Today is "Ash Wednesday", the observation day for a ritual that has always (quite frankly) freaked me out. It's easy to wonder why folks would want to walk around with the residue of ashes on their foreheads, especially when it is applied to make the sign of a long-past sacrifice. That in itself speaks to the mystery of our modern condition. So many people venerate a symbol of capital punishment. But this wasn't just any execution, was it? This brand represents the material death of a figure that many people now consider their savior. This is a puzzle that you can unravel to expose a chain of associations that stretches to infinity. Still, I think it's important to take a step back and think about it all pragmatically.

This day kicks off Lent, a period of abstinence that ends on Easter, which brings about the symbolic return of the aforementioned savior. This resurrection (if you will) marks the official formation of "the Church". But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The essential question is, "Why celebrate the death on Earth of a righteous man, condemned for others' sins, and made to suffer agonies that are ironically referred to as 'The Passion'?" It kind of sets a precedent for a society built upon obliteration. The historical Jesus is said to have performed many miracles before meeting his end at the age of 33 (?)... imagine what he might have done if he had lived to a ripe old age.

If The Christ could turn water into wine by his early 30's, think about the wondrous tricks he could have performed in "middle age". Perhaps he could have written his own books instead of having his followers (many of whom had never even met him) do it for him. We can only imagine that Word made flesh. Yet that wouldn't have suited the narrative. His public demise was necessary as an instrument of control for all of those who lived in his midst. People needed to learn to atone for their indulgences. What would you have done with a man who made folks aware that they were already part of "God"? That's way too empowering for the flock- better a dead shepherd than a liberator, right?

Now we are told that a "Day of Reckoning" is at hand. We will all have our turn to be judged. However, we won't be evaluated based upon our Earthly deeds. "Our Father" will determine our fealty to the message. Did Jesus die for you? Was his agony on that cross necessary to cleanse you of your "sin" (never mind if it is sufficient, because that's an entirely different subject)? Can you get a pass that easily? Today you will see lots of people who believe that they can. Their foreheads will be marked quite conspicuously. They'll make a concerted effort not to eat meat on Fridays, or they'll quit looking at porn, or make some other kind of great sacrifice. This will signify their awareness of the "need for redemption".

Anyway... it's all very strange in a mytho-poetical way. I only have the vaguest recollections of all of this ritualized behavior. I suppose that the faithful line up in front of the proxy (or priest, minister, and/or pastor) to be blessed with the charred remains of year-old palm leaves. This all sounds shamanic to me. There are certainly pre-historical antecedents for this type of behavior. But even more bizarre is the addition of "Oil of the Catechumens" to the ashy mix. What is it and what's with it? A "catechumen" is someone who is undergoing preparation to be baptized. At least that's what Wikipedia says. Yet I can't for the life of me figure out what the oil is made out of, or made from*. It's another mystery.

* Besides olive oil... that much I could find out.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you have even the vaguest of recollections of the process of being inscribed by ashes. As far as I'm aware, that's solely a Catholic tradition, not one practiced by Protestants (as used in the broad sense).

Then again, (1) I haven't done further research, (2) the oil part I'm not so sure of, and (3), you did drink the blood and eat the body, though I think there is a difference in the supposed composition (that is, real blood and body, or representational thereof).

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all teaching methods and they still work. JM

1:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering: What if Christ were killed using another, modern form of capital punishment? I mean, if the year was zero today, would we see (in the next couple millennia) people with miniature electric chair pendants on their necklaces? Or how about little gas chambers stuck on top of their fake Christmas trees? Maybe some Christians would have colorful tattoos of lethal injection syringes on their arms. Who knows! I'm just saying it would make the Ash Wed. design a little more complicated. Good thing it was a cross, eh?

4:34 PM  

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