Last year I attended an Ash Wednesday service with my children. It was the first Ash Wednesday service they had experienced since toddlerhood. I had missed a couple of years going and was determined to experience this ritual that I love so much. Since my kids were by my side that day, they went too.
I planned to attend the service at the new church plant led by my friend at a coffee shop near our house. The service started at 6:00, the same time soccer was scheduled to end. Seriously determined to participate in this liturgical moment, I pulled my son from soccer practice early. He changed from cleats to sneakers as we raced down the road to the service. “What exactly is this service we are going to?” my daughter asked. “Ash Wednesday.” I replied. “It is a day we remember we are just humans and therefore imperfect. They rub ashes on our heads to remind us all we are mortal. It is supposed to remind us we are not God.” I glanced into the rear view mirror to see one of those “sorry I asked” faces my daughter often gives.
We arrived at the service just as it was about to begin, my son still covered with sweat and dirt. My friend, the pastor had thoughtfully organized the spare room adjacent to the coffee shop with different stations for people to explore before the service. There was clay to work with, and flour to write out our sins with our fingers in and then wipe away. I whispered to my kids to work their way through the stations while I went and joined the small service.
We adults began to speak the liturgy with the sounds of coffee being ground in the background. About halfway through the familiar scriptures and prayers my kids piled in beside me. I don’t know if it was the small crowd, or the familiarity of the service leader, but for whatever reason they picked up the order of worship in their seat and began to follow along.
When time came for the imposition of ashes, our pastor invited those who wanted to partake in the ritual to come forward. Sure enough my kids joined me in the line. It is hard enough to think of my own body turning to ashes, but it is harder still to imagine this for my children. I whispered back to them, “You sure you want to do this?” They nodded their heads to signal they were all in.
When my daughter stood in front of my friend, I could see my friend’s fingers pause. Apparently this was the first child she had ever imposed ashes on before. Our pastor did not want to imagine her young friend’s death any more than I did. She asked if my daughter wanted the ashes on her head or on her order of service. My daughter handed her the sheet of paper, probably more from fear of getting messy than fear of death. A small cross was drawn on paper and handed back to her. But when my son stepped forward he pointed to his head. My friend took a breath and said the words we have to say, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
Then she gently smudged a cross on his sweaty brow.
After she was finished, he looked at her and said, “Now I’ll do you.” Before we knew it, he was dipping his dirty finger into her bowl of ashes and oil and rubbing his hand down and across her forehead. For a while we just stood there caught up in the truth of the moment before we remembered we were supposed to take our seats.
On the car ride home we began to process what had gone on in the service. I asked them if there was anything they didn’t understand. My daughter questioned what the writing in the flour was all about. Admittedly, we don’t talk about sin much, so I explained that Ash Wednesday was also a day we say sorry. That we have all done things that were wrong, things that hurt people, things we wish we hadn’t done. Then with a wipe of flour or ashes, God forgives us because we are just human after all.
And all of a sudden there in the drive through line at Chick-Fil-A, it all started pouring out. How my girl had gossiped about a friend and then felt awful about her betrayal. My son confessed how he bugs his sister constantly because he is jealous of her seeming perfection. Then she tearfully said she wasn’t perfect, she was the one who ripped a hole in the ottoman the year before, a crime that we had all blamed on the dog. We had a regular altar call while waiting on our chicken and fries.
Totally surprised at the depths weighing on my children’s young souls, I offered up a pardon of sins. Reminded them that God and their family forgave them. As we drove off with our fast food dinner, they began heaving sighs of relief. Claiming to feel so much lighter and freer now that the weight on their consciences had been lifted.
When I planned to go to the Ash Wednesday service that night, I thought it was just for me. That my children would be tag alongs who I hoped wouldn’t get in my way. Instead that night this verse came to life for me “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”