Warning: this post contains Good Place spoilers. If you haven't yet binged the entire series, consider yourself warned!
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
-Ash Wednesday Liturgy
Spend a moment searching for what Christians think about the television series "The Good Place," and you'll see a mixed set of results. On the one hand, the show presents a godless depiction of an afterlife, which upsets media commentators from Christian Right.
On the other, the show depicts an afterlife system in which people who do not-so-good things can be tormented for eternity, which those same talking heads from the Christian Right are perfectly cool with.
Putting aside this conservative evangelical handwringing, we might see that the show, in particular the series finale, contains tiny glimmers of inspiration that might actually resonate with Christians who aren't in the business of sin accounting and Netflix divinity policing.
"Whenever You're Ready" is the final episode of The Good Place, a poignant epilogue to a show that tactfully careens between network comedy and subtle, accessible philosophy. In the series finale, the characters find themselves living in an eternal paradise of their own construction, a place of indefinite and neverending bliss: Madden tournaments, EDM dance parties, and fancy French dinners, among other amusements.
Yet as these characters experience this eternal paradise over many thousands of years, they come to the recognition that infinite contentment is not all it was cracked up to be. Even William Shakespeare, who makes his debut on the show in it's final episode, cannot stomach too much of the best things, his sequel-laden writing becoming a shell of its former glory.
For the show's characters, an afterlife of their own choosing is simultaneously perfect yet perplexing. As they soon discover, without finitude, even our best experiences and brightest moments become dull and tedious. Without limitation, our happiest thoughts turn to irritation.
One by one, most of the show's protagonists come to the realization that the meaning of our lives is a product of our mortality. Our lives are lived to the fullest not when we experience the complete fullness of time. Rather, our lives are best lived when we realize that what we have is a mere fragment, a transitory moment that comes and goes. We live the good life when we recognize how similar we are to waves crashing on the beach:
Recognizing that meaning is derived by the brevity of our experience, they soon devise a system through which the characters can pass through "the door," surrendering themselves to whatever comes next.
Fittingly for our annual Ash Wednesday observance, the characters turn to specks of light and dust as they take that step through the door. We don't see what happens to these characters when they walk through the door, we don't know what happens next. All we see is that they return to the dust, to the stardust and ashes, of which they were created:
Each year, I pause on Ash Wednesday to receive an imposition of ashes, as is the long-standing Christian tradition. It's an annual reminder that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.
As Christians, we don't receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of outward piety. We don't receive these ashes to make us feel guilty for screwing up and committing crimes against divinity. The ashes aren't intended to trigger guilt, remorse, anxiety, or shame.
We receive the ashes to remind us of our limits, to hold us accountable for our limitations. Placed on our forehead by a member of a faith community, the ashes are a visible invitation to a season of turning, to a time where we can remember that all things must pass. By receiving these ashes and remembering our finitude, we can set our lives in proper order. By remembering the dust on our faces, we can commit to service, to justice, to kindness. As we see the smudge in the shape of the cross, we are invited to commit ourselves to God's calling, to rekindle our desires to serve in the mission we all share.
This seems to be the most misunderstood aspect of Lent. This isn't a season where we remember that we have fallen short and dwell on our failings. This isn't a season to feel guilty. This is a season to remember that our time is running short, and that there is so much to be done. This is a season to remember that when we have finished our race, God's work continues.
As my late friend and mentor Brent Christianson reminded me each year on Ash Wednesday, we might be stardust and ashes, but we are blessed stardust and blessed ashes, called into existence, invited into God's work in the world. And though that calling may last for but a moment, it is a blessing and a gift as expansive as eternity.
@ryanpanzer will be observing Ash Wednesday online this year.