Yeah, right. You know, in some convoluted way in your heart of hearts, that that means everyone else but you—don’t you?

It’s the human condition. We give lip service to our mortality, joking about it at the water cooler with a wry smile—but we live as though there were no tomorrow, and no end of tomorrows. It seems that many of us don’t REALLY believe that one day we will be gone, and the earth will continue on its axis as though nothing had happened.

I was thinking of a story about Madame Pompadour, the French lady of the court who was mistress to King Louis XV. Madame Pompadour was seriously ill and nearing death from tuberculosis; but to her last moments, she lived as she had always lived—preening for her audience. On her deathbed, she called out to God, “Wait a second!” as she dabbed her cheeks with rouge.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten season, the Church calls us to prayer and penitence, in preparation for the ultimate journey at the end of our lives. The ashes which are imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a tangible reminder of our mortality, of the dissolution of our mortal bodies after death.

 

Ashes in Scripture  

In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of mourning and penitence. The prophet Job (Job 42:3-6) says to God, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandered of its own accord. Wherefor I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 6:26) called for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.”

And the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:3) says, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.”

 

Ashes in Contemporary Culture

Contemporary folk singer/prophet Michael Smith reflects on mortality in his classic “Dead Egyptian Blues.” King Tut is dead, Smith sings, so what good will money and fame do?

Oh Mister Tut they dig the tomb
All that gold leaf brightens up a room
But what's the diff when you're stiff what riff they're playing
When your ears have spent five thousand years decaying
What does it matter what possessions you may boast
When you're just a ghost it's only jive clive
Your sarcophagus is glowing but your esophagus is showing
Who cares how rich you are love
When you look like Boris Karloff....

Smith then compares the futility of his own strivings to Tut’s quest for power. There's a contemporary slant, to be sure, and yet King Tut’s fate is also Smith's (and also ours).

Oh Mister Tut, you wait and see:
Another few thousand years they're gonna dig up me.
And I'll have all my little treasures near at hand
A CD of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,
A little dried out Maui wowee crumbled in a bong,
A letter from my honey saying, “Love you, kid. So long!”
Some peanut butter sandwiches that have long returned to sand,
Not much gold or silver -- but Tut, I think you'll understand
That in my way I'll be just like you,
All wrapped up in them dead Egyptian blues.

King Tut is dead, he says, but soon we’ll be just like him. Pack your peanut butter sandwiches, wear your ashes proudly, and be ready.