Ash Wednesday: No Selfies

The author and friend take a selfie. I'm not saying it's a sin.

In his jeremiad against the practice, Vanity Fair culture columnist James Wolcott offers the following stupid examples of the electronic form of self-exposure known as the “selfie."

It has proved itself again and again to be a tool of the Devil in the wrong, dumb hands, as then congressman Anthony Weiner learned when he shared a selfie of his groin district, driving a stake through a once promising, power-hungry political career. A serial bank robber in Michigan was apprehended after posting a Facebook selfie featuring the gun presumably used in the holdups. A woman in Illinois was arrested after she modeled for a selfie wearing the outfit she had just nicked from a boutique. A pair of meth heads were busted for “abandonment of a corpse” after they partook of a selfie with a pal who had allegedly overdosed on Dilaudid, then uploaded the incriminating evidence to Facebook (Dec 2014).

I suppose the first “selfie” bore a title like “Raphael: A Self-Portrait” but the practice “went viral,” as they say, with the combination of the front-facing camera phone and that all-inclusive, but never discrete, photo album, which we call the world-wide web.


The New York Times recently reported that museums around the world have begun to ban an extension rod, the "selfie stick," which can be attached to a phone. It’s employed by tourists seeking to capture the self in a panorama. When used carelessly, it can easily damage art work.

Wolcott sees only one upside in the surge of the selfie:

Times Square selfies, even those involving a shish kebab device, are an improvement over the more prevalent custom of visitors asking passersby such as myself, “Would you mind taking a picture of us?,” and offering me their camera. Selfies at least spare the rest of us on our vital rounds.

I, however, would include that among the negatives. A selfie, as its name implies, is about as individualistic as one can get. You can put others in the shot with you, but all of you stand isolated from your surroundings, captured in the photo. In contrast, there is something humbling, and a little daring, about asking a stranger to snap a photo: you have to solicit someone you don’t know for a favor. And, there’s the question, will he or she even return your camera?

Most people readily take the photo, happy to respond graciously in the face of a request so easily granted. Sometimes, the shot creates a story: “remember how that fellow, who didn’t speak of word of English, kept telling us to move closer to the fountain? I thought that we’d fall in.”

Photos snapped by a stranger are a uniquely modern form of interaction, a personal, albeit passing, communion. Sadly, now, if you have a big enough extension stick and a smart phone, you can show up everywhere in the world, without really interacting with any of it.

The imposition of ashes is one of the great communal acts of the church. Like the reception of Holy Communion, it’s not something you do for yourself. Other members of that communion of souls, which we call the church, other parts of the Body of Christ, look straight at you and brusquely say:

You are dust and unto dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

This is sacramental in the deepest way. Word, gesture and substance all come together in an act that is inherently communal. On Ash Wednesday, we appear in public as marked by a community, one which the Gospel has formed.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber (Jl 2:15-16).


We don’t even see our own ashes, unless we spend a lot of time in front of mirrors, or take selfies.

But how folks want them! Everyone shows up on Ash Wednesday. And wonderfully there is no debate about who should receive ashes. We all want them. We all need them. And blessedly we need each other to receive them. There is nothing “selfie” about ashes.

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

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