From Ashes to Easter: The cost and the promise of a Lenten practice

On Ash Wednesday, the children’s service at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church lasts only half an hour. We designed this service to use language that is accessible to young people, but it sacrifices none of the elements of traditional worship. Older children read the Lectionary passages for the day, repeating the prophet Joel’s call to “rend your hearts and not your clothing” and to “return to the Lord your God.” As the lector prays Psalm 103, reminding us that God “knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust,” the whole congregation repeats the antiphon, “The Lord is merciful and gracious.” By the final verse, even toddlers are chiming in, in a chorus that is truly precious.

But the children are not there to be precious. Like the adults who accompany them, they are in church on Ash Wednesday to, in the words of the children’s liturgy, “prepare our hearts for the great mystery of Easter.” We ask them to make sacrifices to that end. The invitation to keep a holy Lent asks everyone present “to think about how you can love God more deeply. Think about those things for which you are sorry, pray daily, and offer acts of kindness that will help others and be a sign of your love for God.” The prayer over the ashes focuses our attention on the season’s promise: “May the ashes placed on our heads remind us that our life on earth is temporary, but because God loves us, we will live with God forever.”

Then comes the moment when, in my role as associate rector, I take the ashes and prepare to walk around the congregation, gathered in a circle. And as this moment arrives, I swallow hard, because in that circle, life and death are visibly intertwined. I utter the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They are words that bring us down to earth. Repeated as ashen crosses are signed on forehead after forehead, they remind us of our uniquely human fate: to die one day, as all creatures must, but alone among those creatures, to know that death is coming. Taken out of context, these words might be depressing. On Ash Wednesday, they invite us to prepare our bodies, souls and minds not only for the death that Holy Week will bring, but also for the resurrection we will celebrate on Easter morning.

Christians stake everything on the revelation that death is the pathway to new life, but sometimes we need to see life and death standing side by side to understand fully the cost and the promise of that mysterious reality. And that is not easy.

Before me stands a boy conceived years after his parents lost their first child to cancer. Next is a little girl whose baby brother was stillborn. There are families complicated by divorce and enriched by adoption. Infants too young to hold up their heads sit propped on a parent’s arm. I mark each of them with a cross of ashes, exhorting solemn children, gurgling babies and adults of all ages alike to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Every year, I finish the service with tears in my eyes. Every time, I am struck by the trust parents show by bringing their children to be marked. It is hard to accept the fact that our children will return to dust. But Christian faith not only tells that truth, it calls disciples of Christ to raise our children in light of it. It calls us not to fear death, but to cherish life, knowing that it can be painfully short, yet trusting in Easter’s promise that our lives with God will be wonderfully long.

The trust parents show on Ash Wednesday is the same trust they display at their children’s baptism. When I baptize infants, I ask parents not to hold their own baby as I pour the water, but instead, to place the child in my arms. That simple physical act embodies a theological truth: that parents are committing their child to a larger household than their own, in which relative strangers share responsibility for each other’s souls and bodies. Within that household, we help each other die to sin, and we remind each other of the daily reality of resurrection, as together we seek the reign of God.

Children are more honest than adults about the resistance to death that we all share. I heard that resistance spoken aloud when, several years ago, I baptized Caleb, a 9-year-old boy with autism. Caleb’s parents had explained that baptism would make him a member of Jesus’ family. Looking forward to that, he leaned happily over the font. But after the water ritual, as he heard me give thanks that God had “raised him to the new life of grace,” fear seized Caleb. His scream echoed through the church: “I don’t want to die! I don’t want a new life!” His parents and I soothed him until he let me sign a cross on his forehead with holy oil, when he smiled at being “marked as Christ’s own forever.” Once Caleb was reassured that his new life had already begun, he went gladly to the Lord’s Table to share Communion with his birth family and the larger household of the church.

Caleb was honest enough to speak the truth most of us avoid. We don’t want to die; we don’t want a new life. I don’t like placing ashes on babies’ foreheads. But I do it, at their parents’ invitation and in view of the whole congregation. Those ashen crosses are a sign that together we are raising these babies to trust the merciful and gracious God who remembers that we are but dust, and who promises that this precious dust will live forever.

Steve Perzan
3 years 4 months ago
Dear Pastor Rhonda, a beautifully touching and inspiring writing. Yet let me place it alongside a tragic and faith confusing happening of a God believing couple, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, of Philadelphia, who were recently sentenced to jail for “allowing two of their nine children” die without seeking medical attention. They believe solely in the “faith healing power of God.” By all accounts they are loving parents and their children love them. They just do not believe in the use of medicine. If a child should die, the child will rest forever in the eternal presence of God. Their belief, their faith in eternal life cost them them their own personal freedom -- jail time for three and a half to seven years, and separation from their other remaining seven children. Your article touches on faith, life, death and eternity… I wonder how you and others would weigh in on this controversy. Does a parent's faith give them absolute right over the lives of their children, or does the Right of State supercede that? In the immediate results of this Philadelphia’s couple's faith and family, it seems that State Rights hold first claim. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return" --- the Schaible's are not afraid of eternal life.
Bruce Snowden
3 years 4 months ago
Sometimes those who live by Faith as all Believers should do, can be mistaken about its proper application. I suspect that Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Schaible may have been mistaken in refusing medical attention for two of their children who died as a result. Jesus did say, "It is the sick, not the healthy, who need a physician" showing thereby the validity of using medical intervention when sick. Speaking of the miraculous that sometimes demonstrated Jesus' power over all materiality, Jesus also promised that "greater things than these will you do." What did he mean? Well, "no one has known the mind of God" but if I may, please allow the following venture. I think Jesus was talking about the encapsulated power of God to come in the wonderous, life-sustaining prescriptions that physicians of the future would offer, gleaned from various elements of materiality, creatively touched by God with healing capacity. Medical prescriptions are nothing less than packaged miracles! Now, as with the use of medically prescribed interventions, so too was it with the "medical interventions" by Jesus called "miracles, healing can be a work in progress. Remember the Gospel account of the step by step healing of the man born blind, who by the repeated touch of Jesus gradually received his sight, involving a "mud pack" containing the Lord's saliva, which Jesus placed on the blind man's eyes. Remember the blind man's amazement as sight gradually returned, saying "I see men as if they were trees, but walking about!" There one sees a miracle mixed with the direct power of God and the use of what in effect was "medicine" the application of the saliva/mud prescription with healing happening gradually. Miracles also happen through the medical procedures available today, through surgeries and various imaging skills, none available in Jesus' time, allowing as a result the "greater things than these" of which Jesus spoke. So yes, prayer is essential that God will empower physicians with the skill to heal, but it should go hand in hand with trust in medical interventions, for really after all is said and done in effect trust in physicians is nothng other that trust in God who "has given such power to men/women" in white coats! At least that's how I see it. God bless Mr. and Mrs. Schaible and family. In a sense their Faith in God although I believe not totally accurate, does inspire.

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