Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday in many Christian churches and the juxtaposition of this against our visit to the Human Origins exhibit last Friday and our conversation about human “specialness” struck me today. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, holds that humans have been made “in the image of God.” There is no theological consensus on what that means, though there are lots of ideas ranging from our ability to love and have relationship to our ability to reason to our capacity for self-awareness. But how “the image of God” is defined is not really what I want to talk about here. Instead, I bring this up to say that in Christianity there is a deep understanding that because humans are made in the image of God that we are special and somehow different from the rest of creation. But what struck me today is that there is a balance involved in this. On Ash Wednesday as the priest puts ashes on each person’s forehead (an ancient Jewish symbol of repentance) he also says to each person “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What struck me is that in a religion that holds to a deep distinction of humanity from the other animals, there is also this very profound reminder that we also came from the earth and our connected to it, a reminder of our own origins, and, I think, a call to be humble in spite of what may make us special. Because maybe we are made “in the image of God” whatever that might mean, but we are also made of the same dust, the same matter, that makes up everything around us, and Christianity thinks that is important enough to remind its followers once a year both with words and with symbols marked upon their bodies, made from this same dust.

Here's a short video explaining the practice a little more:

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