In New Orleans I lived in a house that was located two blocks from a very popular Mardi Gras parade route (a New Orleanian would ask, “Is there such thing as an unpopular parade route?”) The house was on a corner lot and had an elevated front porch. The porch provided an interesting perspective from which to observe people leaving parades. I spent many years pondering Ash Wednesday sermons while sitting on that porch on Fat Tuesday, the last and most intense day of partying in the carnival season.
One year a middle-aged couple stumbled into the middle of the intersection below. After circling 360 degrees the woman took the cell phone she held from her ear and placed it against her chest. Squinting her eyes and scrunching her nose she looked up at me and said, “We can’t remember where our car is.” She was swaying as she spoke. I told her that I believed this to be a good thing. I also wondered if it would do her any good to remember that she was dust, and to dust she would return.
By the time I left New Orleans I wasn’t a fan of Mardi Gras. The whole affair seemed excessive and limitless, a massive exercise of public gluttony with tons of cheap imported plastic being hurled through the air at people trampling each other to get it. I’m sure that when and if my many friends in New Orleans read this it will make them sad. I’m also sure that one of the reasons I became dismissive of the Mardi Gras event is because, in part, it reminds me of my own tendency for consumption and excess, which is limitless.
Ellen F. Davis, in a remarkable lecture on Genesis that I heard many years ago, said that the first sin recounted in the bible is the sin of consumption. Shortly after the first sin was committed the humans in the drama are told that they are dust, a reminder, as Walter Brueggemann writes, that we belong to, with and for the earth; that we and the earth are related. And because of our relatedness the human vocation is that of a steward. We are friends and companions to the earth. Seen this way, Ash Wednesday’s “remembering” is a counter to a forgetting that leads to a life of consuming rather than care-taking; of craving everything that a consumer culture can think to hurl in our direction and a willingness to trample on someone else to get it.
It will be very sad, indeed, if one day we look back at the world we have helped to make and decide that we aren’t, after all, fans. Or to get to the end of our days and consider many (any!) of them to be wasted. To realize that we traded in, if only in part, a Godly vocation for a gluttonous appetite feasting on the menu of a consumerist culture. We are called to be care-takers; friends of the earth and friends to each other and today, Ash Wednesday, we will be reminded that we are dust and that to dust we shall return. In regard to our various excesses, whatever they may be, I hope these words do all of us some good.