One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash



Image credit: NASA/ISS Expedition 28, public domain from Wikimedia Commons

They call it reentry, I suspect, because of the perils and stress experienced by astronauts reentering the earth’s atmosphere.  If the calculations are off, you either burn up or bounce back into the void.  Neither is a pleasant prospect.  It is also the feeling many of us experience at returning to work after the holidays.  We’ve had a taste of life without gravity, then suddenly you’re back into the thick of things.  It didn’t help that among my accumulated emails (I do not check work emails during my few allotted vacation days or holidays) was the notice of the sudden death of fellow scholar Gary Knoppers.  Gary’s interest early on included Ugaritic, before shifting to Second Temple Studies.  I once asked him over breakfast if he recalled the question I posed as a grad student when he presented an Ugaritic paper back in Kansas City.  Of course he didn’t; I don’t recall any questions I was ever asked either.  (With one exception.)

Gary died prematurely, just back before Christmas.  The usual venues for finding out such news, like the Society of Biblical Literature portal, were also on vacation.  It is maybe best that I didn’t learn about it until reentry.  Still, it didn’t make it any easier.  I can’t claim to have known Gary very well, but the suddenness with which someone you know dies can lead to shock.  Not so much the fact of death itself, but that it has claimed someone you knew.  I was working with him on a book idea for my employer.  We had traded health complaints about not being young men anymore.  It’s all so very human.

On Ash Wednesday a couple years back one of my colleagues asked if I was going to get ashes.  I replied that I thought about death every day and that I didn’t need ashes to remind me.  She thought it was a funny response, but it is actually true.  One benefit of my religious upbringing is that it early took away the fear of dying.  Since all people have to face mortality, it never made sense to me to fear it.  That doesn’t mean the same thing as wanting to die, but the price to pay is frequent visits to the valley of the shadow in my mind.  I was merely being honest that Ash Wednesday; my interest in horror is, by the way, related to that constant awareness.  Gary was a productive scholar and a kindly man.  Learning of his death so soon after the holidays became its own kind of reentry.  And a reminder that January looks both forward and back.


Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

Ashy Valentines Day

It’s been 73 years since it’s happened. Happy Valentines Day! And depressing Ash Wednesday. This is more of a popular culture conundrum than a sacerdotal one. I noticed in my many years at Nashotah House that Saint Valentine doesn’t make the liturgical calendar. This struck me as odd, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. The church has always had a difficult time with love. At least when it starts to get physical. Even if Valentine was a saint—and nobody knows for sure which Valentine it was—he surely didn’t become beatified because of his amorous inclinations. Nothing helps to put you out of the mood like being told “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

As a society we’ve been living in an Ash Wednesday that has been prolonged for over a year now. A government of St. Narcissus, for the only love there is love of self. Yet when I thumb through the liturgical calendar Valentine’s still not there. Ironically evangelicals—the name now belongs to those who support Trump—dismiss love as having anything to do with Christianity. This isn’t about love. It’s about showing hatred to the poor and stranger, the kicking out of those in need. It’s about military parades and “Sieg Heils” and law makers who vote themselves even more power with our tax dollars to fund their insidious schemes. There’s no need to gerrymander around the church—it’s on your side. Is it Ash Wednesday or is it Valentine’s Day? Surely it can’t be both.

Love is valued only in so far as it can be commodified. If you can get people to spend money on cards and chocolates and condoms then you’ve got a holiday worth celebrating. Otherwise you might as well join old Job sitting on his ash heap. The last time these holidays coincided the world was at war. The President had set up safety nets to catch those who were the victims of the greed that led to the Great Depression that is now all but forgotten. Nazis were a bad thing then. Now all we have to do is blubber about “fake news” and declare the truth a lie. Christians prefer Ash Wednesday to Valentine’s Day anyway. I admit to feeling a bit conflicted about this. Patriots and lovers used to be compatible concepts. We’ve been told that America is being made great again, but they called that Depression great too. From where I sit it looks an awful lot like Ash Wednesday to me.

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?


This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

Ashes to Ashes

It was just a small blurb in the paper. Down at the bottom of page 17, it could have been easily overlooked. “Alleged witch killed by being set on fire” the small headline stated. And the date was 18 February 2012. This sad incident took place in Nepal. The story notes that “Each year hundreds of women in rural Nepal are abused after being accused of being witches.” Just last week, to the scorn of many, Cologne, Germany reopened the case of Katarina Henot, a woman burned as a witch 385 years ago. Katarina Henot was declared innocent because of the efforts of a priest to raise awareness of the persecution of women around the world. Five days after the story hit the news, Theganidevi Mahato was burned to death in Nepal. Although some called the action in Cologne a publicity stunt, it was anything but. We need to put names on those we continue to allow society to brutalize. Katarina Henot and Theganidevi Mahato, separated by 385 years and many, many miles, both died for the insanity that equates tragedy with women.

How blithely the word “witch-hunt” spills off the tongue. Each time we invoke it, the very phrase trails the ghosts of many thousands of women made to pay the price for society’s paranoia. The answers to why such tragedies occur may never be fully understood, but the events are preventable. The key is education. Even in the most advanced culture in the world, as we like to style ourselves, we heap contempt upon education, claiming that teachers barely work and that professors get paid for doing nothing. We have fallen into the fallacy that one size fits all—not all jobs can be measured by the wicked, black dip-stick of the oil industry, or the quick-cash-and-crash of the stock exchange. Education is a lifelong process, and as the political ridiculousness we constantly hear reminds us, lessons must be endlessly repeated until they sink in. Too many people think it is just easier to burn witches.

Witch-hunts arise when societies are stressed. Scapegoating is one of the most unfortunate legacies religion has left us. Evidence points to the scapegoat as being earlier than the Bible, although it takes its characteristic form there. We hear how the sins of the people were transferred to the goat on a day not so different from Ash Wednesday, to be symbolically born away where the animal would die instead of us. Somehow we’ve come to believe that burning the representative of our neuroses will somehow cure our society. Does it? Has it ever? This day as millions of Christians contemplate their sins and wear ashes on their heads, I suggest that we think of the women whom religion has allowed to become its victims. Whether due to the superstition of a remote village in Nepal or the irrational fear of “civilized” Europe with the blessing of the church, we’ve let scapegoating go too far. And those who’ve been killed are not the nameless females of forgotten times, but are the Katarinas, Theganidevis, Marys, and Rebeccas who were just as human as their neighbors.

What are their names?

If You Ash Me

It was a familiar British voice on the BBC that first introduced me to the concept of Dismal Days. As a very frugal couple newly married and living abroad for the first time, my wife and I had little entertainment other than the radio. Doctoral candidates didn’t have time for television, and besides, in Britain you had to pay for a television license in addition to the electricity it would cost to watch it. We didn’t even use our pathetic wall heater in winter. When the BBC 4 announcer mentioned that it was a medieval dismal day, my wife and I exchanged bemused glances. The concept has become part of our mental warehouses. Today is not a medieval dismal day in that sense, but Ash Wednesday brings a dreariness all its own. As a young Fundamentalist I didn’t know about this particular day, but when I attached myself to the local Methodist congregation I learned a history lesson.

Methodists descended directly from Anglicans (Church of England). And as I learned in my ill-fated Nashotah House days, some Anglicans believe they never really separated from Rome. Ash Wednesday has now become a widely recognized day of mourning and repentance (as if all days weren’t such) and for many years I submitted to the ashes. It was always with wonder, however, since Jesus purportedly said not to show any outward signs when you are lamenting. I wondered where the tradition began. The earliest references to Ash Wednesday date from the papacy of Gregory the Great, in the eighth century of the Common Era. It is just like the Middle Ages to add drear to an already dark and cheerless season. Lent was originally intended for reflection, but in the macabre mind of the Dark Ages it became an excuse for utter misery.

Dismal Days are actually far older. In origin we again have the Romans to thank, although they blamed the Egyptians. In Roman society two days each month were deemed infortuitous to begin important ventures. In fact, the word “dismal” derives from the Latin for “evil days.” The idea that certain days are especially gloomy is a hangover from superstition that many rational people have now completely disregarded. Many of those rational people, however, will be spotted today with ashes on their otherwise hygienically cleansed foreheads.

Why not buy in bulk?