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Ashen living: Better Call Saul and the life of repentance

This post contains spoilers but I have kept them to a minimum.

AMC’s new series Better Call Saul starts in the most unlikely of places: a Cinnabon in a local mall, shot entirely in black-and-white. This is where we discover Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman, hiding in plain sight at a dead-end job, in order to keep a low profile in the aftermath of his life as Walter White’s lawyer and accomplice. Incidentally, this is where we also see a cinnamon roll being iced in tones of deep grey. It’s revolting.

This opening is quite odd in many ways, as David Bianculli noted in his Fresh Air review of the first two episodes. Better Call Saul shows the present, rather than the past, in black-and-white, reinforcing our sense of the bleakness of Goodman’s existence, in contrast to the full-color life he lived less than a decade before. In this new life, Goodman’s only comfort (other than a generously poured, post-work Rusty Nail) is his memory, specifically his memory of the time immediately before he “became” Saul Goodman, the fast-talking shyster who “put the criminal into criminal lawyer.”

As an enthusiastic (albeit weakly repentant) fan of Breaking Bad, I’ve been eagerly expecting this spin-off for several months, and its arrival on UK Netflix was a welcome surprise this past week when I had a few hours of down time. It was nice to get a peek into the past life of some familiar characters, like Tuco Salamanca and Mike Ehrmantrout. Walter White even makes the briefest of cameos in his characteristically bland khaki trousers and green shirt. And the chance to see Saul in his natural environment, when he’s still James McGill, struggling lawyer, was a real treat. Bob Odenkirk delivers an outstanding performance. But I was struck at the nostalgic glow surrounding Goodman’s remembrance of things past.

Perhaps this mood will change in the coming episodes, but it has started the show on a peculiar note. Goodman lives a kind of ashen existence, a mere shadow of his former self, almost wholly devoid of pleasure or lacking any feeling, save for one: the fear of being recognized for who he is and was.

Watching the new series only a week before Ash Wednesday, I couldn’t help reflecting on how different this attitude is from the one we are called to adopt. We are called to recognize just who we are, who we’ve been, and who we’ll become.

Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

Whatever else it may be, this isn’t the easiest phrase to hear as you’re ritually smeared with ashes, along with a bunch of other penitents. Indeed, in the wrong context, it could be almost soul-destroying. The season of Lent can also seem a bit washed out, a bit like Goodman’s life post-Walter White: a life in black-and-white, no Alleluia, no joyous music and readings, a time to reflect on where we’ve been or what evils we’ve committed or suffered. And, if we observe anything like a traditional fast, we may not even have the comfort of a late night Rusty Nail to dull the existential pain.

These resemblances are superficial, of course. Lenten living is not about wallowing in the memory of our previous life with a sort of perverse delight, while denying ourselves any present enjoyment. Lent is, instead, about renouncing our sins, remembering the great humility of human existence, and reorienting our lives around what truly matters. It’s about the possibility of renewal and conversion. It is about stripping off the old human, with its futile practices, and putting on the new one, which is being remade according to the image of its creator (Eph. 4:22-24).

A life characterized by such repentance, one that takes the lessons of Lent seriously, is also wildly different in its results and attitudes.

In the past week, I attended the memorial service for the Rt. Rev. Stephen Sykes. It was a time for thinking about Sykes’s rich legacy, the great influence of his teaching, preaching, writing, and pastoral care. But I was struck during the service by a repeated note about Sykes: how frequently he referred to himself as “an unworthy servant.” The drama of such a richly lived Christian life of public witness, coupled with such an internal humility, struck me quite deeply.

Among other things, the phrase recalled a biblical passage that was drilled into me during my first ministerial internship, one that a friend and mentor had hanging on his door:

Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” (Luke 17:1-10)

Lent is about many things. But one of its lessons, one of its chiefest reminders, is this: we are but unworthy servants. There’s little to be proud or puffed up about. What do we have that we didn’t receive? Even in our initial creation by God, we were just a simple, fragile thing, a bit of elements made from nothing and held together by sheer grace. In itself, the mere wonder of being — and being alive — is enough to inspire an eternity of devoted service. We, who are completely unnecessary, wholly conditioned, wholly dependent on God and on others, enjoy the great gift of life.

Remember you are but dust.

But our unworthiness extends even further, for not one of us is free from sin. In our fallenness, in the nature we inherited from our first parents, we act in this world, and we often act in ways that are destructive to ourselves, to other human beings, and to the whole of God’s creation, subjected to vanity and decay because of us. We have all lived in a state of disobedience to God: we are “by nature, sons of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). And, as such, every one one of us deserves that sentence heard first by Adam. And we hear it today.

Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

But this season of Lent is itself a godsend, as is the whole of the life announced to us by Jesus Christ, when he proclaimed to us the nearness of the kingdom of God and the concomitant necessity of repentance. We must hear the message of our humble origins and the message of our sinfulness. But we must also hear the saving message, the healthful proclamation of the possibility of repentance. For us children of earth, doomed sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, the doorway of mercy and of new life is not only available; it is made present and thrown open wide. For the New Adam has gone before us and marked the path.

Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

We are dust indeed, but dust that has been graced once more by the forming hand of its maker, held together and made pliable in the water of baptism, given breath and life by the inspiring Spirit, and shown the way to paradise by a living and active Word. This Word has come to visit us in our lowliness and humility; this Word was made dust himself. But he took that dust and made it glorious. He took what was corruptible and made it incorruptible; he took what was mortal and made it immortal; he took what was weak and made it strong; he took what was earthly and made it heavenly. He made it flash with the brightness of the stars, shine like the sun at noonday, and gleam with miracles, made it all glorious in the heavens, at the right hand of God.

If we were left to ourselves, we might have become something like Saul Goodman: burnt out, aging, only capable of wallowing in a past “glory” that should bring us shame and not delight. We might live an ashen existence whose bleakness would never end. But we have not been left to ourselves, nor have we been left to our past. There stretches before us an indescribable future, “a weight of glory” to which the present sufferings cannot be compared (2 Cor. 4:17).

For us, there is now an ashen existence that is humble, repentant, and thankful, aware of grace and full of grace.

Ash Wednesday ends in Easter. So let us begin our journey; let us begin again and be made new in penitence.

The featured image is a shot of Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman.


  1. From Morning Prayer in the Maronite Rite for Ash Wednesday:

    Blessed are you, heavenly King,
    worshiped, honored and magnified with the Father and Holy Spirit.
    With your resplendent light you enlightened creatures and gave us the blessed Lent which obliges us to renounce ourselves and follow you on the way to the truth.
    By fasting and prayer, you make the creature return to its source and Creator;
    by fasting and prayer, we know ourselves and master our passions and desires;
    disputes cease and peace reigns among individuals, in families, and among the nations.
    Fasting is the weapon of fighters and the shield of believers; fasting is the strength of Christians and food for their souls.
    And now, we implore you, Christ our God,
    teach us the meaning of sacrifice and the cross in our lives.
    Let us see the great riches and the abundance of goods which flow from them.
    Make us esteem evangelical poverty, and may the deceiving pleasures of this world not seduce us.
    Confirm us in your love and may carelessness and illusion not dominate us.
    Grant us the living Spirit, the spirit of wisdom and knowledge; may they fill our minds and hearts,
    so that we may distinguish between substance and appearances, spirit and matter.
    May your gaze be upon us and your hand guide us.
    Then we shall walk towards you in uprightness
    and meet you with joy,
    glorifying you, with your Father and your Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.


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