Ash Wednesday: Every Parent’s Nightmare
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. Heaps 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? 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 parents’ shoulders, innocent of the dark sign they now bear on their foreheads, 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 only for one night.
This post brought me back to a very powerful moment I experienced a few Ash Wednesdays ago…..I was offering the imposition of the ashes at our service when a woman in our congregation with very advanced MS came forward in her wheelchair. As I made the sign of the cross on her forehead and said the words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” I was struck by how close to that reality she likely was. Most of us who knew her imagined she would not live very much longer and would indeed soon be dust. But immediately behind her in line to receive the ashes was a four-year old girl that had come to be part of our church as well. And I realized that I would put the same mark on her and say the same words, though I hope beyond hope she has much of her journey ahead. But how profound a message to proclaim the fragility of us all at once….one of the realities of Ash Wednesday that I truly cherish.
Your story gave me goosebumps. We are all dust, and we never know how soon that truth will surface in our lives. You put your finger on what I love about Ash Wednesday – that it gathers us together in all our fragility and reminds us that not only are we in this together, but we’re in Christ together. Which changes everything we think we know about life, and death.
The deaths of young people is so heartbreaking. It’s happened several times in our community over the past couple years due to extended and sudden illness, accident and tragic behavior. (My husband is a high school teacher and our children are teens/young adults, so it hits us all.) Prayer in community is the only solace I know.
So true, Peg. There’s no sense to be made of such tragedy. But there can be solace – the gift of gathering with those we love.
I couldn’t make it to Mass yesterday, alas, so it was great to read this post and to “virtually” experience the ritual of the ashes. You are so right about our need to acknowledge pain and suffering and mortality — these terrible things are so hard to face, and yet ignoring them brings a different kind of pain. I love that our faith acknowledges the existence of suffering, and offers us rituals to help us confront it and, in a way, contain it.
Have a blessed Lent!
Ooo, good point, Ginny: “and yet ignoring them brings a different kind of pain.” Our rituals do help us confront and contain the painful side of living, and perhaps that’s precisely why they can be so freeing. It’s like the sacrament of reconciliation. Who wants to share their sins and failings with another human being? But the lightness and grace that follows – wow. Absolutely worth it.