With both children in school this was going to be the year I finally got around to going to an Ash Wednesday service. I would go to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Kalamazoo. We attended Sunday services there for months when we first moved here so I knew a little of what to expect.
Instead, the kids were home for a snow day. There would be no time alone to drive into town to contemplate my mortality. I could have taken the kids but was concerned that our Toyota Matrix might not be so great in the snow. With my hubby in Mexico there was no backup to help. I pictured my little hatchback stuck in a ditch, me and the girls crying and cold waiting for a tow truck, on the phone with Jon trying to explain how on earth this happened. No thanks. We’ll stay home.
I curled up under the covers with my cell phone and googled Ash Wednesday scripture verses. “All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Ecclesiastes 3:20” Maybe I could teach the girls about Ash Wednesday at home. With much chagrin, this brought back memories of camping trips and vacations when my parents implemented our own family church services on Sunday mornings while traveling. We kids, of course, were thoroughly annoyed. So it wasn’t a surprise that when I explained about the thumb-smudged ash cross put on foreheads the response was, “I wouldn’t want to walk around like THAT,” in a tone implying that’s weird. And it is a little bit.
I took a stab at explaining Ash Wednesday to my kids. Lately I’ve been wondering if we are doing enough to teach the Good News to our kids. We do devotions at dinner time and bedtime and pray before dinner but during busy weeks it becomes rote. We talk freely about God when they bring up the topic. They attend children’s worship on Sundays and have Christian extended family. But I went to a Christian school and gained so much Bible knowledge from that, knowledge that led to faith. I worry I’m not passing enough of that down. So I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass. Ash Wednesday, I told them, reminds us that our lives seem long but they are really very short. We will die, but God lives forever. I read them the scripture verses Google found for me that morning. I said lent is a time to tell God we are sorry for our sins, but the penitence was not my main focus. Maybe that’s next year’s lesson.
Ultimately, this worked out for the best. I’m not sure my heart was in the right place to have gone anyway. I wanted the field trip of visiting that historic building again, entering through that big beautiful red door under its blue-gray slate roof. Maybe I thought of the ashen cross as a souvenir if I’m really honest. Selfishly, I wanted to get something, a mid-winter diversion, the episcopal “smells and bells” experience that seems to elevate encountering God. I wanted to be blessed in a prominent church founded here in 1837. Never mind meeting the great I Am Himself, more historic and beautiful than any building or music or incense. That ash means nothing if we don’t think gravely and seriously about the sin we are so stuck in and keep returning to. That sin should mean when our bodies do return to dust that our souls should be forever damned from our good and loving and holy Father. Without repentance, the symbol means nothing. In fact it might condemn us further.
But in his mercy we don’t have to stay there. In his “lovingkindness” he rescues us. The next part of Ecclesiastes says that we should do our activities with joy.
Ash Wednesday is a holiday, a holy day, that only a believer in the Almighty Triune God could appreciate. Though it seems heavy-handed and morbid and a kind of a downer to many, we can rejoice in it. By confessing our sin and fallenness in relation to a holy sovereign God we are reunited with our good and gracious Father. We gain so much in letting go, in reminding ourselves that we aren’t the most important thing. We humble ourselves and then because of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross can see clearly to magnify the only sovereign one who is worthy of all praise. What a joy.
This Ash Wednesday, February 10, that joy translated into valentines. I rounded up leftover of valentine supplies from my kids and made valentines for whatever dear people came to mind. I stickered, scripted and cut with whimsy and youthful abandon. Happy paper mail in the name of Love. Thankfully, joyfully, this was all I could think of to do.