Making Sense of Ash Wednesday and the Crosses on my Children’s Foreheads

Photo by Laurie-Anne Robert via Unsplash
Photo by Laurie-Anne Robert via Unsplash

It was a beautiful thing to do in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the week, at the beginning of Lent. We crowded into our church’s small chapel, the adults in chairs, the children sitting on the large, red carpet at the front. We prayed together, and we confessed together. We sang hymns together.

We’ve attended Saint James for nearly three years now, and this was the third time in my entire life I attended church on Ash Wednesday. Every time, it surprises me. Every time, I sit there and watch my children walk to the front, receive on their clean little foreheads a dirty cross of ashes (made from the palm leaves of the previous year). Every time, I hear the priest say over them,

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Every time, I feel the tears well up in my eyes as I think of this reality. They are dust. I am dust. And, someday, to dust we shall all return.

* * * * *

Richard Rohr, writer and Catholic priest, has done a lot to help me make sense of the transition we made three years ago from Evangelical to Episcopalian. I say transition, though it’s been more of a melding, more of a taking on than a laying down. In a recent homily, he proclaimed these words:

There’s a tragic sense to life. What Lent is about is somehow asking for, and hopefully receiving, the grace to accept the essentially tragic nature of human existence. On Wednesday, this church filled up all day. I’m always amazed. Why do you all come on Ash Wednesday? You don’t have to, you know. But people pour into church. The cynic says, “Catholics come to church anytime they get anything for free, whether it’s palms or ashes. They all show up.” There might be some truth to that, but why do we want these dang ashes on our foreheads?

Somehow, we know that we need to be told that we came from the earth and we’re going to return to the earth and everything in between is a school. Everything in between is growing up, waking up, cleaning up. Becoming the full image that you were created in, which is always and forever, the image of God.

* * * * *

Maybe there is more than one reason these ashes bring tears to my eyes. Maybe it’s not just about the sadness of death. Maybe they’re hopeful tears, hopeful in the way we sometimes cry at weddings, or births, knowing the hard things are so intricately tangled up with the good things. Maybe I cry because I so desperately want to grow up, to wake up, to clean up, not in a sanitized way but in the way a fresh spring cleans the rocks it pours over. Maybe the emotion comes because I can sense how infinitely close we all are, and also how far away, from becoming the full image of God.

The kids always come running back to us after the service, their cross of ashes on their foreheads, and we gather in an impromptu, instinctual, group hug, as if to comfort each other, as if we know in that moment, as in all moments, that we need to hold one another close, that we need each other in this image-becoming.

One of the main themes in my upcoming book, The Day the Angels Fell, is death and questions surrounding death – what will we do with it? What is its role in our lives? Could it be possible that death is a gift? If you’d like to have me come to your church this fall to talk about the role of death in the Christian world view – incarnation, death, resurrection, and redemption – click the “Contact” button at the top right of the page and let me know. I’d love to see you! In the mean time, you can preorder my book HERE.

4 Replies to “Making Sense of Ash Wednesday and the Crosses on my Children’s Foreheads”

  1. My mother died years ago in May. I remember coming home from the hospital from a long visit, knowing the end was near. Leaving the hospital I took in the fragrance of cherry trees blossoming along the street. At home I stood for a while in an open doorway, looking up at a beautiful clear sky. At that moment, I felt that the world was so beautiful and simultaneously so sad. And that God is where beauty and sorrow meet. It was as if Jesus reached down a hand to comfort me.

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