Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Fellow priests, please remember the words are "Remember, O Man, that thou art dust; and unto dust shalt thou return." This is to said whether the ashes are being imposed on a man or a woman or a child. The word "Man" for the fallen children of Adam, in whom all are dead, to be delivered only by the Lord, the Second Man and Last Adam. Each member of the fallen human race, that race called Man or Adam, is told the first half, the bad news. We say these words and receive them in anticipation of Easter that will come at the end of this exile in the desert: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." I Cor. 15:22

“Remember, O Man” first appeared in the March, 2002 issue of Touchstone.

Remember, O Man

Robert Hart on Ash Wednesday

In its emphasis on mortality and guilt, Ash Wednesday offers a two-fold remedy to what ails society. That is, to what ails society because of the prevalent deception that is in the air, and is, like most unthought-out yet strongly held opinions, caught like a virus. Only someone with a Christian mind understands why the thought of our death and our guilt brings comfort. But then, this also suggests why only the Christian can, in the end, be truly happy.

Mortality & Guilt

About death and dying, popular thinking seems itself to be in a state of denial. Perhaps with the beginning of the worship of youth in the 1950s, and the resulting youth culture, people began to seek to avoid death by avoiding age, perhaps by avoiding adulthood itself (after all, the word adult is beginning to mean nothing more than childish delight in things pornographic). If we do not grow up, we cannot grow old, and we can live forever. Viagra can even take away the (to them) greatest disadvantage of age, the loss of sexual gratification.

Maybe we can stay young forever, like Hugh Hefner, who at 75 may still ponder what he wants to be when he grows up. But for now he has nothing more important to do than to score with the chicks, his seven live-in girlfriends. As long as we can sing with Peter Pan, “I won’t grow up,” how can we grow old? How can we die?

The only virtue recognized by the Zeitgeist is that of staying in the best physical shape, having the sleekest and strongest body, and maintaining peak sexual performance. We cannot die. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall live.

So much for mortality. As for guilt, somehow our society has bought the lie that guilt is no problem at all, unless it is felt. All fingers must point to the professions of psychology and psychiatry for forging this deception, and selling it after the model of the most talented con artists and snake oil salesmen. The feeling of guilt is now a medical disability; the reality of guilt must at all costs be denied.

I recall vividly an experience from some 20 years ago, as I sat eating in a restaurant within hearing distance of two men who had no interest in keeping their comments private. “Look, she made the decision to have the abortion,” the conversation went. “Well, that’s that. Now she feels sad all the time because she feels guilty. The doctor told us that we have to be tough with her for her own good, and tell her to knock it off, quit moping, and get on with it.”

Funny how the doctor knew that would happen. Probably, as my experience of sidewalk counseling has made me know, one of these heroes was the sperm donor who, after a bit of pleasure, had to muscle his girl into making what he considered to be the responsible decision. First the girl was deprived of her child, and now she is deprived of her mourning, her conscience—her soul. Part of her very inconvenient humanity had to be eradicated, of course for her own good, just as the child was exterminated for its own good. It’s always for their own good: “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12:10).

The feeling of guilt, even when it is another doing the feeling, gets in the way of sheer pleasure. The feeling of guilt is a malady, and must be treated by searing the conscience with a hot iron. After that, one can sleep nights, if not with peace, at least without painful, annoying distractions.

Thank God for Ash Wednesday. We are reminded by the words, “Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return,” that death is a certainty, and we can cease from endless, tireless labors to stay young and naturally immortal. We can focus on something bigger: the eternity into which we most surely shall enter.

We are reminded also that guilt is not so much a feeling as it is a fact, a fact of our fallen sinful lives. We do not have to eradicate the feeling of guilt, and we can cease from the hopeless struggle to deny it. The feeling of guilt must lead us to God, and that fact of guilt be dealt with by Christ, who alone cures that fact and creates a restful conscience. Our consciences can live quite powerfully, and we should not consider it a sickness, but rather the greatest health of the soul leading us to seek absolution with repentance. When we in faith give our conscience its place of effect and power, we face mortality without fear.

So I find comfort in the themes of mortality and guilt on Ash Wednesday. It is the world, not I, that is mad.


  1. Anonymous8:56 PM

    Fr. Hart,

    Your perceptive analysis of the secular city's great taboos reminded me of an observation made many years ago by one of my favourite Law profs: although succession law had some of the most fascinating cases and principles, in his experience the Wills and Estates courses could never match the other mainstream subjects for attendance - probably, he thought, because of society's aversion to anything associated with death.

    And W.H. Auden's lines from "September, 1939" came to mind:

    "Faces along the bar
    Cling to their average day:
    The lights must never go out,
    The music must always play,
    All the conventions conspire
    To make this fort assume
    The furniture of home;
    Lest we should see where we are,
    Lost in a haunted wood,
    Children afraid of the night
    Who have never been happy or good."

    Millo Shaw

  2. Anonymous3:35 AM

    Guilt hasn't been eradicated. It has changed. Guilt about anything we do, or any choice we make, in our personal lives--especially our sexual lives or the consequences thereof--has indeed been eradicated. It has been replaced, however, by guilt about the things over which we have pretty much no control: world poverty (especially in the parts of the world most distant from us), global warming, etc. And woebetide anyone who lives in anything resembling middle class comfort, no matter how modest! One friend grew up being thoroughly spooked by sermons that convinced me that he was headed straight for Hell because he lived in a nice house, went to a good school, and had parents who loved each other and him. Jesus simply doesn't love people like that!

  3. Good point, Sandra!
    There is an innate sense of guilt in man, as is indeed only appropriate, and, except in those whose consciences have been, as the Apostle says, "seared with a hot iron," there will be a feeling that something is amiss. When one works hard to deny the sinfulness of what one is doing, the guilt simply has to show up somewhere else. It may perhaps be a hopeful sign that the particular conscience, though mistaught, is still alive and thus still a potential line of communication with God. At least I often pray so.


  4. Maybe but, I have seen whole "liturgies" created (for Episcopalians) in which "repentance" for world hunger, the existence of war, pollution, violence (with no mention, of course, of abortion), racism, sexism and even homophobia (fear of man?), seemed to be a very subtle way of really saying the following: "I thank thee God that I am not as other men. the greedy, the war mongers, the racists or even as this homophobe..." It seems more like self-righteousness than guilt, just stated in a way that hides someone from the need to repent of his own, real, sins.

  5. Anonymous12:38 PM

    Isn't that the liberal cult-of-the-self? Hold and, better yet, demonstrate the "correct" attitudes and feel good about yourself.

  6. Precisely so, Bruce, and Fr. Hart's comments are right on.

    The very small shards of hope I am reaching for and incorporating in both my prayers and my witness to nonchristians (and heretics, which may not be a different thing at that) is that, at least, the idea that sin and guilt still do exist, even if the concepts are distorted and misused. What it witnesses to, in part, is that sinner have an ingrained sense of sinfulness, no matter how hard they try to cover it under layers of self-righteousness.


  7. Anonymous3:01 PM

    No, not fear of man, but fear of those who are the same. (Makes even less sense, doesn't it?)