Ash Wednesday and Woodstock

It was 1969 and Joni Mitchell was singing at Woodstock. Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. The New Age had arrived that year with the inauguration, so the astrologers told us, of The Age of Aquarius. Things planetary, natural and mystical were in the air, albeit fuelled by LSD. The science of it all was beginning to dawn. First, a beginning realisation that technology had alienated us from nature. We must renew our relationship with the Earth. And, then, there was the astonishing realisation that We all share the same original molecules. We are stardust. Joni Mitchell sang about this.

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

It was a manifesto of a kind, one that was, and remains, in sympathy with the new spirit of liberation: sexual, political, philosophical and social. Truly, the Age of Aquarius had arrived.

Some years before that, in 1964, Karl Rahner published a set of reflections on the Christian liturgy in a book entitled, The Eternal Year. It still remains an inspiring text but sadly one, that is now out of print. In the book he offers a truly magnificent reflection on Ash Wednesday where he focuses on the essential material and ephemeral nature of dust. It is, he says, the ‘symbol of nothingness’. Over against the secular optimism of the Age of Aquarius, Rahner confronts us with our essential selves, as people of this clay and this earth, and, yet, as the psalmist put it, ‘a little less than the angels’. Such is the essential paradox of our humanity: a ‘king of shreds and patches’ (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4).

Rahner explores the mystery of our ‘throwness’ (Heideger’s Geworfenheit) in his reflection on the dust of Ash Wednesday. We puffed up creatures of The Age of Aquarius are in need of a wake up call. The Ash Wednesday ritual provides it clearly, loudly and, yes, painfully. If we are devout, we will like the Jewish people of old, place the Ash Wednesday dust on our foreheads to remind us of just how puffed up we are. And, yet, we are not only of the earth, of the Universe, we are also, Brother Philip Pinto said recently, ‘made of God’

And so, Rahner:

Dust is a good subject for reflection on Ash Wednesday, for dust, the symbol of nothingness, can tell us a great deal. The prayer that accompanies the distribution of ashes comes from Genesis (3:19): ‘From the earth you were taken, dust you are and to dust you shall return.’ Dust is the symbol of coming to nothing: it has no content, no form, no shape, it blows away, the empty, indifferent, colourless, aimless, unstable booty of senseless change, to be found everywhere and at home nowhere. And scripture is right. We are dust. We are always in the process of dying. We are the only beings who know about this, know that we are bound for death, know that we are dust. Through our practical experience we come to realise that we are dust. Scripture tell us that we are like the grass in the field, like an empty puff of air. We are creatures of drifting perplexity. Despair is always threatening us and our optimism is a way of numbing bleak anxiety. Dust we are.

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