Last night I lingered in a long line of blinking tail lights to turn into the parking lot. I wondered about the growing crowds at each year’s Ash Wednesday services. What packs the pews this evening every Lent?
As I waited, I thought of four young girls killed in a weekend car crash. Freshmen roommates, victims of a mild winter’s rare snow storm. One was from our town. Another was our sitter’s co-worker. Shiny senior portraits show girls on the brink of adulthood, bright-eyed and smiling. Lots of ashes at their loss.
I looked around at faces, young and old, as I entered the church. Many at Mass knew and loved those girls. What does Lent mean when we’re staring at death?
Before I left home that evening, my husband had told me a story he’d heard about the American reporter killed in Syria. The night before she died in the bomb blast, she told of the suffering of women and children, often the focus of her wartime front-line reporting.
“I watched a little baby die today,” she told the BBC on Tuesday. “Absolutely horrific, a 2-year old child had been hit. They stripped it and found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest and the doctor said ‘I can’t do anything.’ His little tummy just kept heaving until he died.”
“Stop,” I cut him off before he finished telling me the story. “Stop. I literally cannot hear that.” I scooped up my own 2 year-old and squeezed his squirming limbs to my chest.
“My love,” I whispered into his hair as he wrestled out of my grasp. Overwhelmed at the thought of losing life closest to my own.
I prayed about both stories in the pew. Death close to home and far away. Parents living my worst nightmare. Mothers watching their babies blown apart, fathers sobbing at their daughters’ death. I hated to think about it. But I made myself sit with the terror of such loss.
Who doesn’t want to flip the page when they see the news? Who doesn’t want to turn their head from the TV’s wail? We shy away from the horror because it is too much for us to bear. And yet each day parents wake to our worst nightmare. Cancer. Suicide. Car crash. Overdose. Babies born too early; teenagers gone too soon.
I stared up at the cross while people shuffled forward to get their ashes. I remembered that at the heart of Christ’s story, too, stands this terrible tension. A mother holding her dead son’s body.
We have to sit with this image, this terror and sorrow. And not only on Good Friday, the day of death that makes us squirm so uncomfortably in the pews. But also Ash Wednesday. Ashes on our foreheads, burnt and smeared, remind us that we each will meet death. Even the young and the lovely among us.
A family filed down the aisle in front of me. In the mother’s arms was a tiny girl with blond curls. She, too, was marked with dark ash. What did her mother see when she looked down at the sweet face smeared with soot? A reminder of her child’s mortality? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Why do so many people come back to church this night? Perhaps because Ash Wednesday helps us make sense of life’s fragility. We ritualize our own mortality to remind us to turn from sin to life-giving love.
Ash Wednesday gathers us together as a church and reminds us that our community cares about the deepest realities of our lives. It gently leads us to the edge of our fears and shows us a way to live through the suffering. It shakes us loose from the clench of loss and speaks truth of rising after dying.
A stranger smudges soot on our skin, and the traces tickle our nose. Teenagers elbow each other and snicker at the size of each others’ crosses. Wide-eyed children peer over their parent’s shoulder, innocent of the dark sign they now bear on their forehead, as mortal as the rest of us.
This sacramental sign holds us in tensions we’d rather shudder off – we’re sinful, we’re mortal, we’re human – and transforms them from terrifying to something holy. Something we can hold.
If even for one night.