My two-year-old son loves our Catholic faith. He tells us he wants to be the Pope when he grows up. Whenever he sees anything that looks like a cross he processes around with it singing hymns and proclaiming Mass responses. So we were sure he would be thrilled to wear an ash on his head for Ash Wednesday.
But when everyone started lining up and he saw what the priest was doing he got really panicked. No! Go to Communion! he shouted, and we explained that communion happens later and that today we were going up for special blessings. No! No! I want to stay here! We tried reasoning with him as he began to throw a full-blown tantrum in the pew so my husband took him out while I went up for an ash. When we switched off so my husband could get one, I asked Joseph if he wanted to go back to the pew. No. Wait right here for Daddy. He watched, sternly, as if deeply concerned something might happen to Daddy in the ashing process. We asked him one more time at the end of Mass if he wanted an ash but we got another firm and adamant No.
Now, I know that all this might have just been typical toddler adherence to routine. But he’s also been to lots of different types of Masses and been introduced to different types of ceremonies and usually welcomes rituals gladly. Something about yesterday’s proceedings seemed to really disturb him. And I’m thinking that maybe he was right in his feelings.
When I was in school, my friends and I would get caught up in the appearance of our ashes. We always wanted to make sure our hair was clipped back properly to make room. We wanted to scout out the right priest who gave the good ones and not the awkward ones. We’d compare ashes at lunch time. And I’d be so disappointed if something happened to rub off my ash by the end of the day.
I think there was a lot of good there— intrigue with the sacred, love of ritual and tradition, and a genuine desire to be outward about my faith. But there was a lot of bad too. Perhaps for those reasons I just mentioned, ashes are cool. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with something being cool! But it’s so easy for the solidarity of participating in that coolness to get in the way of the meaning behind it. Namely, the ash ought to make us uncomfortable and somewhat humiliated. I might go as far as to say that the ash ought to horrify us.
Of course, we know the full story. We know what happens at the end of Lent. So when the priest says, you are dust and to dust you shall return, we may think, okay yeah, sure, but not really. Because I’ll be raised up on the last day. And it’s so wonderful that we possess this promise. But it is also important to remember why we even need that promise in the first place. The Resurrection doesn’t make any sense without Good Friday. Understanding redemption doesn’t make any sense if we don’t understand sin.
And there is no way to sugarcoat sin— no way to sugarcoat the Crucifixion. I’m dealing with this problem right now with my son. It was so easy to teach him about the tender Nativity story. It’s so easy to teach him about Jesus the baby, the friend, the father, the shepherd. But the man who suffered and died? The other day Joseph saw a picture of the Last Supper and said “it’s Jesus’ birthday party!” I’m not at all looking forward to telling him what happened after that party. I’m not at all looking forward to telling him that that man on the cross he sees as a comforting symbol of our family’s faith is actually dead – and moreover that people killed him.
The disturbing truth is that the same evil that killed Jesus wounds Jesus and all of humanity over and over again, every day. Easter did not rid the world of sin — though it offers us a way out. Lent is the time to remember that we have a responsibility to choose that way out. Even if we wish it was, it is not chosen automatically for us. The ash is not just a reminder of what we could have been. It is a reminder of what we could be. We can still choose to return to dust and that absolutely ought to horrify us. Because we know we are made to be more than dust. I think my son saw it yesterday and I hope he never forgets it— we aren’t supposed to have ashes on our heads.