The Ring Goes South
It is strange to consider endings on a day set aside for beginnings. The merry and carefree days of Carnivale have passed into the dour and somber notes of Ash Wednesday: Lent has begun. These forty days, as represented by their most exemplary start, are often considered a gloomy and guilt affair. Just as the Fellowship departs Rivendell with “no laughter, no song or music,” so too we replace feasting with fasting, music with silence, fair garments with ashes. Today begins the period of penance, and long days lie ahead before the end of our mortification upon Easter morn.
And yet, it is necessary to take up considerations for an ending as we set out. As Bilbo inquires of Frodo:
“‘Have you thought of an ending?’
‘Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant,’ said Frodo.
‘Oh, that won’t do!’ said Bilbo. ‘Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?’
‘It will do well, if it ever comes to that,’ said Frodo.
‘Ah!’ said Sam. ‘And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.’”
It is natural for us our minds to focus on dark and unpleasant endings, when so much of this day’s attention is spent on dark and unpleasant things. However, all of human history is written forth in the Book of Life, and it should have a good ending. Each of us live out a story, a winding narrative full of characters and conversations, suspense and surprise, sorrow and laughter, and it too should have a good ending. What ending can we consider more good and proper than the one Bilbo suggests, that we settle down, live together, and are happy for ever more? In such an ending, we find peace, friendship, and joy eternal. It is, as Bilbo argues, the only ending that will do.
On Ash Wednesday, we begin again to consider such an ending. As we set out to “pass into the domain of the Enemy” and wrestle with sin and guilt and death, we long to end up happily ever after. As with a good book, we don’t want to be left with a cliffhanger that is never resolved, or bitter tragedy that is never rectified. Yet it is Sam that shows his simple wisdom by wondering where such settled and happy people will live together ever after. On Ash Wednesday, we recall what lies beyond the circles of this world: with ashes on our forehead, with the word dust ringing in our ears, we muse where our great journey must end in order to conclude the story of our lives.
As the French novelist Leon Bloy famously wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” On Ash Wednesday, we know the ending we so desire. On Ash Wednesday, we remember that “our heart is restless until it rests in You” (Augustine), that we shall drink again “at the tavern at the end of the world” (Chesterton), that “happiness is something given rather than something pursued” (Quinn). On Ash Wednesday, let us then embrace joy instead of gloom, for we are marked with the hope of our happily ever after, and now set out in faith to witness its fulfillment.
2015’s Reflection: “On Ashes Upon Our Foreheads”