Wednesday’s Ashes

Dan Clendenin
9 min readFeb 20, 2023

By Dan Clendenin

From Our Archives

Dan Clendenin, Super Tuesday Meets Ash Wednesday (2008); Barbara Pitkin, Tempting Fate (2011); Debie Thomas, My Flannel Graph Jesus (2014); and Debie Thomas, Tempted (2020).

For Sunday February 26, 2023
The First Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12–19
Matthew 4:1–11

This Week’s Essay

Whenever I’m asked about my favorite movies, there’s one that always makes my list — the British film Still Life (2013). It’s available on Amazon Streaming, which gives this teaser: “a man charged with finding the families of those who have died alone is assigned his final case, and finally starts living his own life to the fullest.” Which is to say that it’s the perfect film for Lent, when we contemplate the certainty of death in order to live life to the fullest.

Uberto Pasolini wrote and directed this poignant story about a low level functionary in the British bureaucracy of South London. John May is a case worker whose job is to find the next of kin for people who have died alone. And finding the next of kin for people who have died lonely and alone turns out to be quite a challenge.

“That’s a strange job you’ve got, all those people,” says one person, to which May responds, “I love my work.” And he really does. He conducts his bureaucratic responsibilities with an obsessive-compulsive dedication to detail and, more importantly, with a palpable sense of the dignity of every person’s life — and death, no matter how obscure, how forgotten, or how alone.

Most surviving family members “refuse assistance,” as May’s bureaucratic form puts it. They want nothing to do with their dead relative when May calls them. No, they don’t want any of the personal effects that May lovingly collected from their apartment. No, they won’t attend the funeral. No, they won’t help to pay for the burial, and no, there’s no one else to call.

When those who died alone are abandoned even after death, May organizes their funerals. He writes their eulogies based upon the fragments that he can discover about them, attends their burials, and then spreads their ashes. He’s the only person present in these sacred moments except for the lone priest or the grave diggers.

The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice.

May himself is socially isolated. He lives alone, and for supper he plops a tin of tuna onto a plate. But then, after dinner, he pulls out a scrapbook of photos that he’s made of those on whom he’s bestowed such dignity — a family portrait, a driver’s license, a worker ID card, or the odd newspaper clipping. Slowly and tenderly he contemplates the lost lives that are now gone. It takes your breath away.

This being a government bureaucracy, May’s job is “amalgamated,” as his boss tells him, and so he’s soon to be out of work — but not before he finishes one last case pertaining to Billy Stoke. Billy was the quintessential loner and alcoholic. In fact, he lived in the apartment right across from May, even though the two of them never met. As he did with so many others, May stitches together Billy’s lost life, reconnects his estranged daughter and friends, and plans his funeral. But then, both romance and tragedy strike.

I won’t spoil the movie more than I already have, but the last moments of this story that take place in a cemetery are some of the most powerful images that I’ve ever seen in any movie.

At my church this Ash Wednesday, the priest will smear ashes on my forehead to remind me of my mortality. As he does so, he’ll recite God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, “from dust you came, and to dust you will return.” This somber truth stands in stark contrast to the archetypal lie that Satan told Eve in Genesis 3:4, and the denial that flourishes down to our own day: “surely you will not die!”

In 1974 the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death. The fear of extinction is so terrifying, so anxiety-producing, Becker argued, that virtually all cultures construct elaborate schemes to deny our mortality and enable us to believe that we are immortal. Becker thought that perpetuating this denial of death constitutes one of the chief functions of culture.

The Temptation of Christ, ca. 1125. Hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga, province of Soria, Spain .

The denial of death, so mysterious back in Eden and so irresistible today, is disastrous. It causes us to form illusory, false selves, and even worse, thought Becker, on the social level it foments all the horrific violence and aggression against others that we see in our world today (since we must prove that other death-denials are false, and even eradicate them, otherwise ours is exposed as a lie).

Christians don’t evade, lie about, flee from or candy-coat the specter of death. Rather, at Lent we bring our future death into the present life. With the Lenten practice of actively contemplating our own death, we pre-empt the inevitable. In Becker’s words, adopting a phrase from Luther, the Christian seeks to “… taste death with the lips of your living body [so] that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die.”

In the Bible, forty is a number of sacred significance. The Genesis flood lasted forty days and forty nights. Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. In the reading from last week, Moses spent forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai. Jonah preached to Nineveh for forty days. And in the gospel this week, Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting, praying, and battling the devil. Thus, our forty days of Lent.

In his book Tortured Wonders (2004), Rodney Clapp recounts a person who chose Ash Wednesday for her one and only church appearance of the year. St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City stands at the corner of Park Avenue and 51st Street, at the epicenter of Manhattan’s remarkable concentration of wealth, power, business, and entertainment.

One Ash Wednesday morning, a gorgeous young woman, impeccably dressed, came forward and knelt at the altar. She was visibly nervous, and the priest realized that she wanted to speak. As he traced an ashen cross on her forehead, she whispered, “Father, I’m a model. I know I only have a few years, then I will be too old for this work. My body is aging, and I can hardly admit it to myself. I do it once a year at this service. So rub the ashes on. Rub them hard.”

Temptation of Christ ‘Bible historiée toute figurée’, Naples ca. 1350.

I love Lent. It reminds me that I don’t need to be stuck in old ways of thinking and acting. Renewal is possible. I can wipe the mud off my glasses. Hit the reset button. I don’t need to wait for old age to magically impart a new perspective on what matters most and why.

In a culture that glorifies excess and indulgence, hubris and bravado, Wednesday’s ashes signify an outrageously counter-cultural act of humility. Lent is the most brutally realistic liturgical season of the year — it’s a time when we tell the truth about ourselves, our brokenness, our mortality, and nevertheless trust in God’s redemptive love. We celebrate the gift of life with all its blessings and sorrows.

I love the German title for the film Still Life. It’s called Mr. May und das Flüstern der Ewigkeit. That is, “Mr. May and the Whisper of Eternity.” That’s what Lent offers us when we listen to the stories all around us about the goodness of life and the certainty of death — whispers of eternity.

Weekly Prayer

I Am Giving Thee Worship With My Whole Life

Originally from the Carmina Gadelica III, 41–47. Taken from Esther de Waal, editor, The Celtic Vision(Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 1988, 2001), pp. 1–4.

I believe, O God of all gods,
That Thou art the eternal Father of life;
I believe, O God of all gods,
That Thou art the eternal Father of love.

I believe, O God of all gods,
That Thou art the eternal Father of the saints;
I believe, O God of all gods,
That Thou art the eternal Father of each one.

I believe, O God of all gods,
That Thou art the eternal Father of all humanity;
I believe, O God of all gods,
That Thou art the eternal Father of the world.

I believe, O Lord and God of the peoples,
That Thou art the creator of the high heavens,
That Thou art the creator of the skies above,
That Thou art the creator of the oceans below.

I believe, O Lord and God of the peoples,
That Thou art He Who created my soul
and set its warp.

Who created my body from dust and from ashes,
Who gave to my body breath,
and to my soul its possession.

Father, bless to me my body,
Father, bless to me my soul,
Father, bless to me my life,
Father, bless to me my belief.

Father eternal and Lord of the peoples,
I believe that Thou hast remedied my soul in the Spirit
of healing,
That Thou gavest Thy loved Son in covenant for me,
That Thou hast purchased my soul with the precious blood
of Thy Son.

Father eternal and Lord of life,
I believe that Thou didst pour on me the Spirit of grace
at the bestowal of baptism.

Father eternal and Lord of humanity,
Enwrap Thou my body and my soul beloved,
Safeguard me this night in the sanctuary of Thy love,
Shelter me this night in the shelter of the saints.

Thou hast brought me up from last night
To the gracious light of this day,
Great joy to provide for my soul,
And to do excelling good to me.

Thanks be to Thee, Jesu Christ,
For the many gifts Thou hast bestowed on me,
Each day and night, each sea and land,
Each weather fair, each calm, each wild.

I am giving Thee worship with my whole life,
I am giving Thee assent with my whole power,
I am giving Thee praise with my whole tongue,
I am giving Thee honor with my whole utterance.

I am giving Thee reverence with my whole understanding,
I am giving Thee offering with my whole thought,
I am giving Thee praise with my whole fervor,
I am giving Thee humility in the blood of the Lamb.

I am giving Thee love with my whole devotion,
I am giving Thee kneeling with my whole desire,
I am giving Thee love with my whole heart,
I am giving Thee affection with my whole sense;
I am giving Thee my existence with my whole mind,
I am giving Thee my soul, O God of all gods.

My thought, my deed,
My word, my will,
My understanding, my intellect,
My way, my state.

I am beseeching Thee
To keep me from ill,
To keep me from hurt,
To keep me from harm;

To keep me from mischance,
To keep me from grief,
To keep me this night
In the nearness of Thy love.

May God shield me,
May God fill me,
May God keep me,
May God watch me.

May God bring me
To the land of peace,
To the country of the King,
To the peace of eternity.

Praise to the Father,
Praise to the Son,
Praise to the Spirit,
The Three in One.

NOTE: For sixty years the folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912) traversed Scotland’s Outer Hebrides isles collecting and translating the traditions of its Gaelic-Catholic people. His eventual trove contained a little of everything — their ballads, prayers, proverbs, hymns, charms, incantations, runes, poems, tales and songs. Carmichael’s labor of love was published in six volumes across seventy years as Carmina Gadelica(“Hymns of the Gael”) Hymns and Incantations, With Illustrative Notes on Words, Rites, and Customs, Dying and Obsolete: Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Carmichael published the first two volumes in 1900. His daughter Ella continued the project. Volumes 3 and 4 were published by his grandson, James Watson, in 1940–1941. Volumes 5 and 6 were published by Angus Matheson in 1954 and 1971.

Dan Clendenin:

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