ARTHUR NEAD Illustration


I once worked in an office where on the day after Mardi Gras I noticed the two girls at the front desk each had made ashen crosses on the others’ forehead. At first I thought it was touching that they had gone to church where, by tradition, the priest would place the appropriate smudge to remind followers of the somber message that to dust we shall return.

By their giggles I sensed that the girls were not affected by the piety of the day, especially when I realized that both smoked and each has blessed the other with the char from their ash tray.

To me Ash Wednesday’s message is not as much about returning to dust but reclaiming reality, and there is a certain spirituality in that too. We in New Orleans are a blessed people to live in a place with European and Caribbean charm but with United States strength and amenities. Add to that a season when masking in the streets is encouraged; where we beg for baubles just for the sheer numbers; where the litter sparkles with beads and where the rhythm is often that of our native music. Too much of this experienced all the time certainly might be sinful. Fortunately there is Ash Wednesday to remind us that a life of feasting needs moments of fasting.

There was a time when, according to tradition, the ashes smudged on by the priests on Good Friday came from burning the leftover palms from Palm Sunday. Now the palms have been replaced by slivers and the ash stash, I suspect, is down. Life changes: Many of the old churches are closed; there are fewer priests. Yet we celebrate with more persistence and fervor than ever, all the more to remember the counter-balancing message. We are denied little in our lives. A smudge on Ash Wednesday could be a spiritual message or perhaps a splash of makeup that survived removal. Either way we need to find peace with our body and our soul.

Jazz Fest, after all, is never too far away.