06 February 2008

Ash Wednesday: When Religion Starts Getting Weird

What's the Real World tag line, "When people stop being polite and start getting real"? Well Ash Wednesday is when religion stops being about toys and chocolate and starts getting weird.

When you're a kid you don't really think much about it. Christmas is cool, its about Santa and getting toys from your parents. No real religion there. The birth of Jesus, sure, but fat Santa, his reindeer and the elves, when you're a kid, it all eclipses the whole Bethlehem thing. Maybe Grandma has a Nativity set and thats really it. It's quite Pagan, I guess.

Then there's Easter and for some reason bunny rabbits, plastic grass and chocolate and marshmallow chicken eggs take the place of the whole resurrection of Jesus phenom. Sugary confections like Peeps and jelly beans mean more to a kid than a dude rising from the dead like a holy zombie.

And then comes Ash Wednesday. And everyone is walking around with this mark of the beast. Mum comes home and she has a black smudge on her head (by 4 or 5 o'clock the priests get lazy and the crosses turn to little more than blotchy, thumb prints). This is when religion gets bizarre for a kid, and you have no idea why everyone is walking around with this circle of soot on their forehead.

The act of getting soot rubbed on your head echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ash over one's head to signify repentance before god. And as the priest smudges your head he'll say something about "you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" and then you go on your merry way.

OK, so now you're five years old. Christmas was dope, Easter is cool and now some guy is rising from the dead and mum and dad have soot on their head. It's a nightmare, really.

It's always made me think of the "The Number of the Beast" concept from the Book of Revelation, where "the Beast" will require all people to receive the branded mark in their right hands or foreheads.

As you can imagine interpretations of this phenom vary so widely I get tired just thinking about it but the idea of christians all getting this mark and then walking out into the world proudly displaying their "mark" is very bizarre, seems definitely Pagan and entirely creepy. It's like The Scarlet Letter in 17th-century Boston. The scarlet letter "A" represents the act of adultery that whats-her-face has committed and it is to be a symbol of her sin – a badge of shame – for all to see. A badge of honour, a badge of shame, whats the difference, really?

It's all comes off very Twilight Zone. People enter this church, and leave branded with ash. They all share this marking. Religion to me is not only ridiculous but also very personal and its odd that once a year all the christians get together and wear it on their sleeves (and by sleeves I mean foreheads) and come out of the proverbial closet, publicising what they believe.

Elizabeth Taylor as Barbara Sawyer in 1973's Ash Wednesday.
Elizabeth Taylor's husband at time, Richard Burton, thought the film was horrible and damaging to his wife's career, according to a letter he wrote in 1973. "I sit here vulgarised by the idea that my wife is doing; violently against my 'taste'; a fucking lousy, nothing, bloody film," he continued her "singular acceptance of this film is because she wants to remain a famous film star. What the stupid (occasionally) maniac doesn't realise is that she is already immortalised (as a film person) forever." Ash Wednesday showed footage from actual facelift operations, which repulsed many viewers when it was originally released. Things were different in 1973.

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