Each passing year, the Ash Wednesday service becomes more meaningful for me. Maybe it’s the natural process of aging creating a growing awareness of my own mortality. We live in a culture that often goes out of it’s way to avoid death, even to the point of using clever euphemisms like ‘passed’ to avoid the very word death. However, there’s no denying our ephemeral nature in a service built around a moment when you are personally addressed, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Still, there is one moment in the Ash Wednesday service that leaves me with a holy unease each year. When my son comes to the rail and lifts up his head, I feel a little twinge in my stomach, my mouth goes dry and I fear my knees will lock up. Some grace compels me to stand before him and utter the words, “Remember, you too; you, my son, are dust, and you too will return to dust.” No matter how comfortable I get contemplating my own perishability, I do not like to think about the death of my son.
My mother attened the funerals for two of my brothers before her own death. I saw the pain as she marked birthdays, empty spaces at family gatherings and random stories that would suddenly recall either the event of their deaths or the unique gifts each offered to our family. It was a hurt she was able to live with, but it never went away, not completely away.
The first Ash Wednesday service I remember my son attending was when he was almost five years old. My wife was out of town, so, as the son of a pastor, he got to attend the Ash Wednesday service. He sat by himself on the front row. I remember how attentive he was. I was proud of how he behaved. Then, when I invited people to come forward for the imposition of the ashes, he bounded forward with a huge smile on his face, delighted to be the first one. I guess I had thought he would just remain in his pew. I wanted him to go back to his pew. What I did not want was to look down at his beaming face, place a cross of ashes on his forehead and say, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I did not want to remember that.
Again, somehow, grace got me through that first time. As I reflected on that experience during the rest of the service, I decided to use that moment as a call to add a new discipline to my observance of Lent that year: more focussed parenting. While I hope all throughout the year, I take my responsiblity as a parent with deadly earnest, during Lent I try to be focussed on helping my son develop his own spiritual disciplines. Just as I might take time to teach him how to swing a golf club or work with a tool, I look for oppurtunities, moments when he might be open to learning about one of the spiritual disciplines. We realize that children have to learn how to read or practice to develop proficiency in a sport, but often we act as if their spiritual lives will just develop through osmosis. In dealing with some of the questions my son raises about the Bible or spiritual practices, I have learned to rely on that same grace that carries me through the imposition of ashes on his forehead.