Does anyone else despise those Captcha tests that websites make you complete to confirm that you are a flesh-and-blood human?
I doubt I’m alone. The goal is noble – to prevent computer programs and artificial intelligence from hacking into a site by presenting a task that only a human could complete. But they can be very annoying. The ones where you simply click on a checkbox aren’t that bad, but the rest I could do without. Who wants to waste time clicking on all the buses? Or fire hydrants or bicycles or traffic lights? Not me.
A Better Captcha
In my opinion, Ash Wednesday is a much better Captcha. It’s a day in the liturgical year that’s specifically designed to confirm our humanity.
The gospel reading for Ash Wednesday this year features Jesus telling his disciples not to use “artificial intelligence” when it comes to their spiritual lives. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (Matthew 6:1).
Just what did he mean by that? He explains in detail. “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward” (2).
He follows that with instructions about prayer: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward” (5).
Jesus goes on to complete the Lenten trifecta: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (16).
Holden Caufield on Ash Wednesday
In short, Jesus tells them to be honest, authentic humans. You can’t phone it in with the results of a ChatGPT prompt. Pretense is a waste of time. Holden Caulfield was right – no phonies, please.
That’s the beauty and the mystery of Ash Wednesday. I’ve written before that this day tends to get a bad wrap because of the doom-and-gloom “you will return to dust” part of the service. But it’s an invitation to be an actual human – one who messes up and starts over, one who never keeps a new year’s resolution, one who talks to the goldfish and uses an expensive putter as a back scratcher.
Sure, the fake stuff is alluring. Perhaps that’s why plastic surgical procedures increased by 54% in 2021, with their non-surgical counterparts up 44%. Maybe that’s why the cosmetic industry across the globe has increased by at least 16%.
In search of mascara not long ago, I came upon row upon row of possible options at the grocery store. One of the packages said, “Achieve your lash goals!” I thought, “Are there real people out there who set SMART goals about their eyelashes?” Wow – I was out of touch and . . . under lashed.
Of course, some artificiality is useful. If I didn’t have Splenda, I couldn’t drink the coffee I need to get moving each morning. And yes, I’ll admit it . . . the highlights in my hair come from the salon, not the sun. Not all artificial things are bad.
But there can be no room for anything artificial when it comes to the core of who we are as human beings. In this year’s Ash Wednesday gospel reading, Jesus goes out of this way to teach his disciples how to “confirm humanity.”
The message of Ash Wednesday is anything but doom and gloom. Yes, we are dust, and to dust, we will return, but what a gift that is! What fantastic news! We don’t have to pretend to be something we aren’t. We don’t have to waste time covering up our weak spots. We don’t have to apologize for being vulnerable.
Quite the contrary. We are invited to embrace it – the weak spots, the vulnerability, the abject humanity of it all. The gospel’s message on Ash Wednesday is that we need to be our authentic selves in all our dusty human insufficiency. We need to be who we were created and called to be.
When we accept the true invitation of Ash Wednesday, we “confirm our humanity” in life-affirming ways. Go ahead! Check the box or click on all the fire hydrants. Showing up as a real human is all God asks us to do. What a relief!