Ash Wednesday: The First Facebook

Facebook has become a fixture of modern life. Hard to believe that it’s only ten years old. It was launched, by Mark Zuckerberg and his classmates, at Harvard University, in February of 2004. The social networking site took its moniker from the directories of undergraduate student pictures, often distributed on American campuses.

Facebook represented an information advance only the web could deliver. It was a novel way to make one’s life “an open book.” Why link only a name and a face, when you can attach a personally prepared biography and promo to the mug? In less than a decade, the website has become as popular and pervasive as a church practice it parodies, an older way to make one’s life an open book: the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes.

Advertisement

Both Facebook and Ash Wednesday are intensely popular. People love Facebook. One has to be very old, or very unconnected, not to frequent its web pages. And 16th-century religious reformers would be aghast at the number of Christian churches and campus chapels that now distribute ashes. Everyone wants them.

Yet between Facebook and Ash Wednesday, there’s a parallel more primary than popularity. A deep-seated desire links the two: we want to tell our stories. To visit a Facebook page is to be introduced to a person’s occupation, interests, vacations, family members and friends. Of course a life can’t be reduced to a page, not even an electronic one. But, for better or worse, Facebook has become a portal into our self-promoting lives, our lives as open, albeit highly trussed, books.

For Christians, ashes on the forehead also tell a story, though in the most abbreviated way. There can be no better illustration than an interview, which Pope Francis gave shortly after his election. Jesuit journalist Father Antonio Spadaro asked the pope, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” 

He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” 

No doubt most of us in the Holy Father’s flock lack his candor and his spiritual perspicuity, but on Ash Wednesday, we cram into churches—like shoppers into stores on Black Friday—because, for all our modern bravura and self-promotion, we still know, and want to admit to the world, that we are sinners. 

Would that the ashes of this Wednesday always be followed by days of confession and penance. Sadly, the repentance is often as ephemeral as ashes. Still, it’s a start. One that so many want to make. 

Joel 2: 12-18 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2 Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Casey
4 years 2 months ago
I, and a number of people I know, don't use facebook at all.Never have. None of us is "either very old, or very unconnected"...well, some of us are pushing 50...sort of old:) We lead full lives, social and otherwise, and none feels unconnected. Believe it or not, there are many happy, healthy sane people who opt out of spending our lives on facebook. The comparison to Ash Wednesday is interesting, but tenuous. The purpose of facebook is to glorify and celebrate ones individuality. Ash Wednesday tells us we are really just inspired dust. As far as goals, the two couldn't be more different.
Christopher Lelouch
4 years ago
Wow! I cant believe it the very first facebook is launched on ash Wednesday? Oh It is really nice to hear that one! Thank you for posting this one. Be with us to , buy instagram followers

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.

On this week's episode, we talk with Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, Cyrus Habib.
Olga SeguraMay 25, 2018