Every year at Ash Wednesday, a small group of folks from the congregation I pastor gather to give each other ashes, to be marked by each other as a symbol of our humanity, our mortality, our brokenness. And at this service, there are always a few parents that bring their children.
This is not necessarily a service geared toward children, but these families come, because to them Ash Wednesday is one of the most important services of the year.
I respect these parents—this is not a service I had the guts to bring my own children to. The last thing I want to do is take the burned palm leaves from last year’s Passion Sunday service mixed with the oil I use to anoint the sick and hurting, and make the sign of the cross on my son and daughter’s forehead. They are mortal, they will die, but I do not want to think about that right now. I’d like to focus instead on their future and their dreams.
But these families bring their children, and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. They mark them, and say to them, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” And, in turn their children mark them, and say those sacred, haunting words.
When I’ve talked to the parents after they have exchanged ashes with their children, I can see the look of pain on their faces, when they say, “That is one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” There is such an unspeakable honesty that comes with this ritual between parent and child.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and marks a call to recognition that we are God’s chosen people, God’s broken people, God’s mortal people. It’s a painful and important part of our discipleship journey. And it’s a painful reminder of our relationship with our children. They will change and parts of our relationship with them will die. They will die. We—their parents—will die, and they will probably be left on this earth to deal with what remains unsaid and undone between the generations.
In that brokenness and humanity, we rest in that odd comfort that God loves us and is with us, blessing our humanity and our failings, blessing our trying and giving us grace and freedom to keep trying.
That’s an important lesson to learn at any age.
And this year, maybe I’ll have the courage to teach it to my children.