Mosaic from Pompeii
30 B.C. — 14 A.D.
National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
I have a deep appreciation for the significance of Ash Wednesday. As the celebrant marks my forehead with the sign of the cross, he intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” reminding me of my mortality. These are the same words said by God to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 as part of their punishment for disobeying Him. Our disobedience blocks us from the eternal life that God intends for us. What God desires from us is repentance and transformation to heal our relationship with Him. Ash Wednesday dates from at least the eighth century and is the beginning of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and good works that are meant to prepare us for the glory of the Easter resurrection.
The Roman mosaic above is a very popular image from Pompeii, the ancient city on the Bay of Naples that was buried by ash and pumice (not lava) from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Here is the Naples Archaeological Museum catalog entry for the mosaic:
This emblema was significantly displayed in a triclinium [dining room] and is one of the most striking for the clarity of its allegorical representation. The topic is Hellenistic in origin and presents death as the great leveller who cancels out all differences of wealth and class…In fact the composition is surmounted by a level (libella) with a plumb line, the instrument used by masons to get their constructions straight and level. The weight is death (the skull) below which are a butterfly (the soul) and a wheel (fortune).
On each side, suspended from the arms of the level and kept in perfect balance by death, are the symbols of wealth and power on the left (the sceptre and purple) and poverty on the right (the beggar’s scrip and stick). The theme, like the skeletons on the silverware in the treasure of Boscoreale, was intended to remind diners of the fleeting nature of earthly fortunes.
© 2001 Stefano De Caro, “The National Archaeological Museum of Naples”. Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli e Caserta. Electa, Napoli, 2001, p. 191.
This type of image is abundant in art through the centuries and is known to art historians as a memento mori, which in Latin means “Remember that you will die.” (Try Googling memento mori images just for fun!) From ancient times until our own era, a skull has often been used as a reminder of our struggle against mortality and the pointless vanity of riches.
Just as images of skulls remind us that death comes to all, so the ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my mortality. But the ashen cross is also an outward sign of my repentance as I prepare myself for the sacred mysteries of Holy Week.
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.
The idea of sin and repentance is not a popular one in our modern world. We may think that as long as we’re not breaking any of the Ten Commandments, then we’re good with God. Meanwhile we may have difficulties with addictions, or obsess over obtaining more and more material possessions, or try to control or manipulate others to feel better about ourselves. Our prayer life may grow dull and obligatory, and sometimes we may even quit praying altogether to avoid any accountability. Nadia Bolz Weber writes:
“Our culture has no idea what to do with a day that celebrates the fact that we all sin and are going to die. But sin is strangely enough one of my favorite things to talk about. I sometimes greet my friends by saying “hello sinner”. It’s a term of deep affection. I reclaim the word sinner.”
The great fact for me is that by my own actions I cannot free myself from sin. I’ve always loved St. Paul’s take on this in Romans 7:18-20: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” I want to love others unconditionally but often fail; I want to have absolute trust in the goodness of God but cynical questions fuel my doubt; I want to face life unafraid but the fear that I won’t get what I want lurks constantly…and on and on.
Thankfully, there is a solution: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Traditionally, the ashes are made by burning the blessed palm fronds from the previous Palm Sunday, when we celebrated the arrival of Jesus at Jerusalem. Thus the ashes signify the events of Holy Week and the sacrifice that Jesus will make upon the cross for us. I also appreciate the feeling of continuity that this gives to the ashes, as if I am joined through years, decades, and centuries with the penitents of the past.
The only solution to myself is turning to God in complete surrender, admitting that I am dominated by the false sinful self that resides in me, praying for the knowledge of His will for my life, and allowing Him to clean house. Though I may not rend my clothing or weep and mourn outwardly, the ashes on my forehead show that for Lent I will commit to repentance and transformation. This is what will free me from the prison of my desires, my self-centered fears, my separation from God and my alienation from other people. The ashes are the sign of my assent to the Gospel, to the compassion of God, and to accepting that Jesus is my loving Savior. Ash represents my freedom.