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Ashes on a Child’s Forehead

February 13, 2013

AshWednesdayI’ve never had the opportunity to impose ashes on the forehead of a child but I have taken my own child to a few Ash Wednesday services.

The first one was at my college chapel and the priest with a blackened thumb was the same priest who had, just months earlier, led my husband, me, and our little community in prayers of thanksgiving for the birth of our son.  I knelt at the railing, waiting to feel the shape of the cross and the weight of the words “Remember you are dust”, and cradled my sleeping son in my arms.  I was suddenly filled with anxiety at the idea that his head, too, would bear this mark.

The priest reached us and only my head was marked.

I was so relieved.  After the service, the priest confessed that he simply couldn’t bring himself to do it.  I thanked him.

My son’s second Ash Wednesday service was the next year.  This time, we were visiting a cathedral in another city but, once again, he was asleep in his carrier on my chest.  The priest reached us and made the sign of the cross on my forehead: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Then he made the sign of the cross on my son’s forehead: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return…but not for a long, long time.”  Silently, I thanked him for that promise.

Both of these priests – and I – were wrong.  Our error is understandable but we were, nonetheless, in error.  Our children are not somehow exempt from humanity, in all its messiness and fragility, just because we wish they were.  Avoiding the dust of their being, or pretending that we can know anything of their future or its duration, is to give them less than their due.  It is the kind of wishful, willfully blinkered thinking that Ash Wednesday calls us to turn away from in order to present ourselves wholly and honestly to God.

The prayer spoken by the parents in the service of thanksgiving reminds us that our children, like we ourselves, belong finally to God.  May you remember this great and terrible truth this Lent.

God, our creator and redeemer, thank you for the gift of this child, entrusted to our care for a time.  May we be patient and understanding, ready to guide and forgive,
that in our love this child may know your love, and learn to love your world and the whole family of your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

(from the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 13, 2013 8:21 pm

    Blessings on you during this season of Lent!

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