Dust and the Forty Days of Feeling Bad

Lent is about penitence, an old word, long out of out of use, residing today only in religious rites, its detritus living on, as old words often do, in other words: chiefly, penitentiary and repentance (though that, too is a pretty rare word in these days of “sorry/not sorry.”). Penitence is an Old French word drawn from the Latin paenitentia. Its root, paene, means “nearly, almost, practically.” Or, to borrow another nearly obsolete phrase: close, but no cigar.

Penitents, in the religious sense, are people aware of their personal sins and failings, who throw themselves in the great pool of Divine mercy, in hope that somehow, the God who knows everything would forget what losers they are. They feel terrible about being losers and God feels terrible about punishing them when they are such obvious and helpless losers, so He forgives them, which is a lot easier anyway, and requires much less real estate, since they don’t have to live eternally in the fires of Hell. All that fire and brimstone can now be used in nuclear holocausts instead. But that’s another blog post.

Many liturgical churches use a “penitential rite” during the Eucharist in Lent, its long prayers serving to insure that the kneeling penitents experience every bit of pain, both in their knees and in their psyches. Then, the celebrant absolves them from their sins, and everyone stands up, feels their bodies again, and goes about sinning merrily until the next time. Which is probably about two seconds after they stand up and look with lust again upon their neighbor’s spouse. It’s all part of the great love/hate relationship that Christianity has with humanity’s “nearly, almost”-ness.

In other religions, sacrifices had to be offered to make God forget about sin: the greater the sin, the greater the sacrifice. The Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, once included animal sacrifices, as well those long prayers, but now is only long fast day, made longer by lots of prayers and scripture readings. Islamic penitence tends to be more perso


An Indian ascetic wearing an iron collar, so he cannot lie down. Those Hindus are tough.

nal, rather than corporate: the sinner just asks for forgiveness and Allah grants it, though Shi’a Islam still has the rite of Ashura, which commemorates the failure of the men of Kura to defend Hussein at Karbala. Buddhist penitence includes confession and absolution, usually from a religious superior, though some Buddhist denominations include confession to the Buddha himself (who would have been appalled. But again, that’s another blog post.) Hinduism, never to be outdone by newer, short-cut religions, mostly relies on self-denial or self-punishment to create purity of heart. Suffice it to say that Christianity is not the only religion that’s obsessed with getting rid of sin, while making you feel terrible for sinning.

Today is Ash Wednesday, when ashes are spread on the foreheads ofash-wednesday the penitent, with the words: “Remember that you are dust and dust to you shall return.” It’s a deconstruction of the Christian narrative of salvation by Grace, an un-absolution, that comes both before and after words of forgiveness. (Christianity has lots of confusing contradictions, kind of like basketball or quantum mechanics.) You’re going to die and rot in the ground. But don’t worry, God just wants to remind you what a scumbag you are, and how much you need him to forgive you.

The ashes are made by burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday rite, in which worshippers re-enact, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, right before he’s nearly arrested and Judas Iscariot agrees to betray him. A week later, he will be executed as an enemy of Empire. The deconstructive liturgy of Ash Wednesday is an anti-Palm Sunday rite: there is no triumph here, just a one sentence reminder that the people who want Jesus to free them don’t really want it badly enough not to betray him, literally or figuratively. That would be us.

Ash Wednesday is a pretty good way to start off the Forty Days of Feeling Bad about “things we have done and things we have left undone,” which pretty much covers everything ever. Feel bad about your affair? Your two-pack a day habit? Your alcoholism? That car you hit in the parking garage and then drove away from hoping no one would see? The Blockbuster videos that you never returned? God’s got some dust to rub on your head, you miserable sinner. Don’t worry though. Easter is only 39 days away.

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