Wednesday, February 21, 2007

ash wednesday: thoughts on anna nicole smith and the war

I am not a Catholic. I did not grow up attending Ash Wednesday services, or observing Lent, for that matter. In fact, we bristled a little when we came to the line in the creed about believing in the “Holy Catholic Church”. Never mind that there weren’t that many Catholics in south Georgia. This was before the great migration of Catholics to the south. That is another story.

Not being a Catholic meant that I did not pay that much attention to whoever the Pope might be. All of that changed in my young adult years, as John Paul was elected, and then as he was shot, and then as he forgave his assailant. Some of my Catholic friends adored him, many others could hardly bear his teachings, even if they respected him as a person. I watched as he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and asked for the forgiveness of the Jewish people for the Catholic participation in the Holocaust. I waited for the miracle that women might be priests in the Catholic Church, or that priests might marry. It never happened.

It was John Paul, who died a year ago this past May, who coined the term “culture of death”. For him it was always juxtaposed with what he also called “The gospel of life”. The culture of death had to do with a variety of issues, all of them hot button----abortion, capital punishment, war, euthanasia. He made Democratic presidents uncomfortable with his opposition to abortion, and he made Republican presidents uncomfortable with his opposition to war and torture.

We lived, he insisted, in a culture of death. I have remembered that phrase as I have prepared for this service, for this season: a Culture of death. You can barely walk through a restaurant, the ymca, a doctor’s office or any room in your own home, or my house, without seeing the face of Anna Nicole Smith on television. She was famous, I suppose, for the reason that she wanted to be famous. Her bizarre and mysterious death must have gripped the imagination of most of the American public, for it has trumped every other bit of television news. She is almost a living proverb, about path of destruction, about an unwise choice of friends, about every type of excess. Now she is our living parable of death.

The only news that can replace Anna Nicole Smith in our national consciousness is the revelation that Brittany Spears has shaved her head. But that is another story, too.

I think of another facet of our culture of death, one that is more important: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now entering their fifth years. I think of the 3135 Americans who have lost their lives, and the fact that most of us could not even come close to a number for the Iraqis who have lost their lives---I had to look up the number, it is between 56,000 and 62,000.

One facet of our culture of death consumes us: we cannot hear enough about it. The other we would rather put out of sight and out of mind. When asked about Iraqi civilian casualties, an official commented, “We don’t do body counts”. The Pentagon will not allow the flag draped caskets to be photographed as they return to the U.S.

I appreciate John Paul for his naming several of the manifestations of the culture of death, for we live, as a psychologist of a generation ago named it, in the denial of death.

Ash Wednesday is the church’s way of piercing this illusion. On Ash Wednesday we confront our mortality. On Ash Wednesday, we are marked with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. You and I will die, sooner or later.

I think of our Lord’s warning, to Peter, late in the gospel:

“When you were younger,

you used to fasten your own belt

And go wherever you wished.

But when you grow old,

you will stretch out your hands,

And someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you

Where you do not wish to go”. (John 21.18)

But the good news is that the reality of death is juxtaposed with the gospel of life.

The dead in Christ will rise

This mortal body must put on immortality.

If a grain of wheat falls into the earth, it bears much fruit.

Death has been swallowed up in victory.

And so our realism about death forces us to confront something else: the promise of resurrection. That the church exists in a culture of death is not the end of the world. First century Rome was a brutal place. We have been here before. The devaluing of human life, the cheapening of human dignity, the horrors that are associated with terror or torture or child slavery or sexual exploitation or abortion as birth control or indiscriminate bombing or gang violence, and the more subtle diminishing of human life: we have worth if we are young, productive, beautiful, attractive, wealthy. If not, we are discarded, because we are a drain on the system.

We mark our foreheads as a symbol of this culture of death in which we live, a culture that is somehow traced back to our fall from paradise. And surely we pray for something more, more than flesh, more than dust, more than matter, more than this life, as good as it might be at times, more than this life.

The psalms often give us this dose of realism:

To you, O Lord, I cried

And to the Lord I made supplication

What profit is there in my death

If I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you?

Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me.

O Lord, be my helper.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;

You have taken off my sackcloth

And clothed my with joy.

So that my soul will praise you, and not be silent. (Psalm 30. 8-12b)

And so, brothers and sisters, fellow travelers in this culture of death, but fellow pilgrims en route to the promised land, let us enter again into this season of Lent. Let us stay close to the One “who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. Let us be in the world, but not of it. Let us look, with hope, to the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


Sources: For estimates of war casualties, google any of the following sites on the internet: International Committee of The Red Cross; Christian Science Monitor; Common Dreams; CNN. Or go to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death was published in 1973, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, two months after the author’s death.


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