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.
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