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Ashes, Ashes

by Caleb Baumgardner | February 19, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down.

That part of “Ring Around the Rosie” is no doubt familiar. Many people, though, do not know the morbid history behind the nursery rhyme. It’s about the bubonic plague, which killed a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century. Most people who were stricken with the Black Death died, and they were often cremated.

Hence, “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

Two days ago was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. The Season of Lent is a penitential season observed by Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant Christians. It begins 40 days before Easter, on Ash Wednesday. It is marked by self-denial, fasting, almsgiving and increased prayer. It is viewed by many Christians as a time of purification, a time to break bad habits and form good ones, and to focus on the needs of others by denying oneself.

On Ash Wednesday, the faithful are marked on the forehead with a cross made of ashes, the burned remains of the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter. The custom comes from the Biblical act of covering oneself in ashes in repentance for sins. It is referred to in many parts of Scripture.

Since my conversation to the Catholic faith when I was in college, this was the first Ash Wednesday that I didn’t get my ashes. This weather is really something.

When someone is marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday, the priest marking them says, “remember, you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”

That’s pretty on the nose, isn’t it? But it’s true. Memento mori, in the Latin. “Remember, you will die.” Or, as Jim Morrison told it, “five to one, baby. One in five. No one here gets out alive.”

I think that all this winter weather we’re in the middle of speaks to that too. All of us had plans this week. For me, one of those plans was getting my ashes on Ash Wednesday. But suddenly Ma Nature had other plans, and here we are.

Death is the same way. Whatever your plans might be, death may have other plans. None of us knows when it will be, but that’s an appointment we’re all going to have to keep. That includes you, Faithful Reader. And me too.

So why am I dwelling on mortality? Well, as I type this it’s still Ash Wednesday, and that’s what the day is for. But more broadly, it’s a reminder about how we ought to live. That is, with some humility. It has only taken a polar vortex to shut things down around here and in other parts of the country. It all happened very quickly, and it has shown us just how fragile our lives are, just how quickly they can change.

That isn’t just true for the weather. It’s true for life itself.

So be humble. And if you do that right, it will keep you kind too, and merciful, and patient, and mindful of others.

The idea of Ash Wednesday is that by reminding us that we’re going to die, we will remember how we ought to live.

Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]


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