I was sitting in my study busily preparing for Ash Wednesday when I heard a gentle, almost imperceptible knocking at my closed door. When I opened the door, I looked down to see one of our preschoolers staring up at me. Her mother was close behind, and prompted her daughter by saying, “What was it you wanted to ask Pastor Chris?”
The little child said, softly, “I would like my ashes.”
“Your ashes?” I asked, unsure at first what was being said.
Her mother then explained that they were not going to be able to be present for the service later that night, but that her daughter insisted she wanted her ashes. They were coming to see if I had them and, if so, if I would place them on the little girl’s forehead ahead of time.
I didn’t have them ready yet, but we worked out an arrangement so that I could come downstairs to the preschool before the end of the day and place the ashes on her head.
I scrambled around after the morning Bible study, going up to the outdoor pavilion and burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday service in the grill. Time was running short before preschool let out, so I removed the ashes from the grill earlier than normal, mixed some olive oil in with the still smoldering ashes, and headed downstairs.
It must have been quite a sight (and smell), as I took the little girl out into the hallway with her mother, knelt down and placed my thumb into the still-warm, smokey mixture, smudging it onto this four year old child of God’s forehead – the same forehead on which I traced the cross after her baptism four years before – and pronouncing words that caught in my throat as I said them, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Later that night we began worship with a breathtaking musical piece, sung by a gifted trio of singers: Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes.” His interpretation of Psalm 121 is ethereal, setting a perfect mood for this day when we recognize our mortality and, in that recognition, come to understand our only true help is from the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps.
When the time came for the imposition of ashes, my colleague C.J. and I stood in different corners of the sanctuary and met those who wished to receive them. There was a great crowd, and almost everyone received ashes, so it took some time. I had those predictable moments of emotion as I placed the ashes on Kim, Caleb, and Chandler. It is never easy to say the words no husband or father wants to permit.
At the end of it all, after the benediction was said and we filed out, the only thing I could think about was that four year old girl, knocking on her pastor’s door, wanting her ashes. She was lifting her eyes, not to her pastor, but to a God she has experienced in the enfolding arms of this congregation, in stories told in Sunday school and nursery, in a home with faithful parents, in the remembrance of her baptism each time she comes forward to witness another child being baptized, and in the manifold ways she is told, every day, every week, “You belong to God.”
It is only someone who knows this deep sense of belonging – this rock-bottom awareness of God’s grace – who can bravely say, “I want my ashes.” I am grateful to worship and work in a place that instills this baptismal identity in all who come.
This Lent I am committed to emulating the brave faith of one of our youngest members. I want my ashes.