We had unicorns at last night’s Ash Wednesday service, and by that I mean two young families with young children who had not been to our church before.
I wondered why they were there. Renegade Methodists? New to the neighborhood? Curious about what goes on inside this big stone fortress of the church? They left before I had the opportunity to introduce myself. But still, I wondered.
It was, I suppose, a rather typical Ash Wednesday service. We went out into the courtyard as the service started to burn last year’s palms, and as the flames danced a bit in the damp evening, the acrid and distinct smell of burnt palms may have made the neighbors wonder exactly what was going on.
The liturgy was straight out of the Book of Common Worship, as I wasn’t feeling too inspired to write anything of my own. Good stuff there. I am grateful.
So we burn the palms and sing and pray and confess and have communion and do the ashes. These families come up for the ashes. The first family comes up with a wee girl who’s maybe three or four, looking at me with wide eyes, innocence and trust.
I cannot tell her she is dust.
I want to tell her she is light and joy, she is wonder and curiosity, she is neutrons and cells and mitochondria and if she has to be dust, she shares that dust with stars. So I bend down and look her in the eyes and ask her if it’s okay if I put something on her forehead. She nods yes. I make a heart of ashes on her sweet skin, and tell her she is so loved. Then I straighten up, look her mother straight in the eyes, make an ashy cross, and tell her – this complete stranger – that she is dust and to dust she will return.
I’m so tired of death I just didn’t have it in me today to say those words to a child. When I started in ministry I was more hardcore. Everyone got ashes – the matriarch with dementia, the dad with cancer, the baby.
Now I want people to live and live fully. I want children to grow without fear of getting killed at school or nuked at home. I don’t want them to have to know about death for a few years. Maybe when their goldfish dies, or when their teacher’s mom dies, maybe then, but not this year on Ash Wednesday.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that life just goes on and in and in, and all the people you love stay around?
It would be quite lovely.