For All the Penitent: Existentialism and the Disenchantment of Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, and I wanted to revisit a reflection I shared two years ago.

Nowadays, you see a lot of low-church Protestant congregations observing both Ash Wednesday and Lent. For example, my church, a Church of Christ, will host an Ash Wednesday service this evening where there will be the imposition of ashes. 

As you listen to churches (like my church) who are embracing traditions like Ash Wednesday, your attention is drawn to how these congregations describe the purpose of these liturgical practices and seasons. A common reason you'll hear today is that Ash Wednesday is a practice of "contemplating our mortality." I expect you've seen, or will see, this existential sentiment expressed online many times today. With the words "Dust you are and to dust you shall return," Ash Wednesday is a memento mori, a time to confront and face our eventual death.

The point I'd like to make today, a point I've made before, is that this existential framing of Ash Wednesday tends to miss the penitential aspect of Lenten observance. The words of Genesis 3--"Dust you are and to dust you shall return"--are not props for existential philosophy, they are communicating the curse that enters the world due to Adam's sin. A curse we still groan under. We aren't confronting death in Ash Wednesday so much as facing the consequences of our sin. 

To be clear, I think contemplating your mortality has salutary effects. I do it all the time. There's a skull (not a real one) in my office for just such purposes. But Ash Wednesday isn't intended to be a bit of existential therapy that helps us on our journey toward self-actualization. Ash Wednesday is the start of a penitential season of self-mortification. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes:

The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).

If "intense moments of penitential practice" seems a bit too archaic and medieval to you, well, maybe Lent isn't going to be your thing. 

My deeper worry, though, is how Ash Wednesday is becoming disenchanted via existentialism.  

An existential Ash Wednesday is a disenchanted Ash Wednesday because you don't need God to have an "existential moment" on Ash Wednesday as you "contemplate your mortality." You don't need to think about sin, judgment, penance, and atonement, because such things assume metaphysical realities outside of your own subjective experience. You don't have to believe a single thing in order to celebrate an existential Ash Wednesday. Which is why, I think, the existential move is in vogue right now. You can thrill to the aesthetics of the ritual and liturgy with minimal (or zero) metaphysical commitments. An existential Ash Wednesday is an emotional experience you curate to feel moody, angsty, and deep, perfect for cultivating a sophisticated and sagacious self-image and its associated social media persona: "Look at me, I enjoy contemplating death! I am deep!"

Do you really want to know who you are on Ash Wednesday? You're a sinner. And there's nothing hip, cool, or sophisticated about that. Surely nothing you'd want to hashtag about yourself on social media. The ashes today remind us that we are petty, selfish, vain, and mean. And if that's too triggering for you, well, like I said, perhaps "intense moments of penitential practice" aren't your cup of tea. 

I am not "contemplating my mortality" on Ash Wednesday. I am confronting the trainwreck that is my soul, covering myself in ashes and tears.

So, for all the penitent, welcome to this season of intense penitential practice. 

Today is Ash Wednesday. 

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