I said “of course” in the second sentence because, as a person who spends a considerable portion of my waking hours chasing after human meaning, every day is Ash Wednesday for me – or Ash Monday or Ash Tuesday as the case may be. And I wore the ashes myself for several years so I know when it’s coming. I miss it – the use of ritual to confront our darkest fears. It’s a basic human need and a basic (and successful) human technique for dealing with the undealable - something I’ve had to deny myself as the price of whatever fragile intellectual freedom I’ve been able to muster – not without regret and not without respect. Some rituals are simple “go through the motions and don’t think about it”, but not this one. The pure primitivism of having the priest smear dirt on your face takes religious imagery back to its tribal roots, when ritual involved blood and prayers were taken very, very seriously. Other rituals take place in a protected setting, behind the church doors and in front of your fellow believers - this one you take on the subway.
The problem of course is that the next day the ashes come off, death goes back in its box and normal life reasserts itself, with its necessary and unnecessary denials securely back in place. But for moment, if only for a day, the believers and unbelievers find themselves standing together in the dust we all share – our starting point, our ending point and, like it or not, our best chance of getting though this thing alive.