Ashes in the Hands of Children

AW1I have to say, I went into yesterday’s Ash Wednesday service with some trepidation. The weather has been strange. We’ve cancelled services, changed the times, stood on watch looking out the window for snow. But the snow storm in Durham meant that our public schools were cancelled for weather. And the new time meant that families with children could come to our 12 pm service. I mentioned this a few times and hoped some would show up.

As the time drew nearer I started to feel nervous. It’s not because I think Ash Wednesday is morbid and therefore not for children. The Gospel message is that we’re sinners and that grace is a free gift for sinners. But this service isn’t brief. And it’s wordy. We don’t live in a world where Lent is an assumed understanding. So we offer an extensive Invitation to a Holy Lent. We preach. We pray over ashes. We confess at length. We pass the peace. We sit in silence.

My daughter showed up five minutes before the service started. Both our littles were falling asleep in the car so my husband sent T in alone. All that silence. All that ritual. I handed her over to the senior pastor in the front row. She wasn’t alone. Lots of children came with parents.

Despite how long I’ve been in churches with sound liturgies and rituals, I always forget the power and grace of these moments. And I forget that children, for centuries, have been woven into the liturgical life of our church, assumed to be participants alongside us. Some of our children colored in their coloring books, others looked at books, but when it came time for ashes to be blessed and imposed all eyes were up front. Another minister pointed out to me that in the silence reflection there was more snuffling and shifting from adults than children.AW3

I long for a robust enough service that a children’s time is no longer necessary, when children are seamlessly integrated into our common life. I think we’re working towards that here, finding creative, thoughtful ways for children to bring their whole selves into worship. But Ash Wednesday is a reminder to me that children are able, are longing to be brought fully into the life of this body.

After worship the senior pastor, her children, my daughter, and I went out to the corner to distribute ashes to anyone who pulled up to the light and asked for some. Heather’s son was incredibly excited about the opportunity. He stood there, finger ashed, at the ready. Our daughters held up a sign that said “It’s Ash Wednesday. We’ve got Ashes to Go!”

It was a powerful moment to turn this responsibility over to our children, to say, “now you go and remind others that God is calling them back. Go remind them that even death cannot separate them from God’s love. Go and make this your own.”

They’re ready. They’re more ready than we know.