Ash Wednesday

Bedtime Theology with the 9 and 6 yo…  

(As kids are getting ready for bed)

Me: Okay so we talked about this earlier. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and that is the first day of the season of….?

9 yo: Ash!

Me: Ah, no. It’s Lent.

9 yo: Well, why don’t they just call it Lent Wednesday? That would be easier.

(6 yo enters the scene)

Me: Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and that is the first day of the season of….?

6 yo: Easter!

Me: Ah, no. It’s Lent.

9 yo: I said they should call it Lent Wednesday. 

My toddler and I went to an Ash Wednesday service today, held at the more kid-friendly time of noon, as compared to most others that occur at 7 pm. I was grateful for the space to reflect on the day and the upcoming season of Lent. I was also painfully aware of the jolt of seeing an ashy cross on my sweet not-quite-two-year-old's forehead. This was his first time. 

After running around in the narthex for most of the service, my toddler insisted on kneeling at the altar rail with the rest of the supplicants to receive the ashes, which put him hilariously low to the ground. The pastor, a good friend, pushed his dark blonde hair to the side and said, "My angel, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." He stared solemnly at her, and then at me, as I received the ash on my brow, oblivious to the tears that started to form in my eyes. 

We bring children into the world only to die, eventually. I remember thinking this at some point during my first pregnancy, a decade ago. Everything is so exciting and full of possibility and tiny onesies and diaper cakes. One day I looked at my swollen belly and thought: I am bringing this person into the world, giving them life, and they will die someday. I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before. 

I probably hadn't thought of that before because most people don't like to talk about death; it's quickly brushed aside in cultural messages of instant and forever youth. If you're starting to look old, there's a filter for that. Or a surgery. Or a product. Or a whopping dose of denial. You pick.

To acknowledge death or grief or loss can feel like something of a gift, even comfort, when you're surrounded by messages that deny those realities. A friend told me that when she posted her late husband's obituary on social media, she felt better, like a weight had been lifted. There's a saying that a grief shared is a grief divided and while I dislike platitudes, there is some truth there.

This morning on the treadmill, I listened to this interview with Dr. Farzon Nahvi, an ER doctor, who spoke about treating patients during COVID but also about the life and death in the ER. He said that when a patient died, doctors and nurses would often look awkwardly at each other and then shuffle away to the next patient. Then, he was working with a resident doctor at a different hospital, who, after a patient died in the ER and the time of death was called, spoke up and said that he wanted to honor that this is a life that has ended. This person had loved ones and friends, just like we have. Then the resident asked for a moment of silence. Since then, Dr. Nahvi has adopted the practice when one of his ER patients dies. He said that often, nurses or staff will come up to him after and thank him for making the space, and acknowledging the loss. It matters.

Lent is that kind of holy space. Yes, it's a time to prepare for Easter, but it's a time to acknowledge losses, grief, death and personal and systemic injustices that cause people to die a little bit each day. Lent, with it's awkward celebration of a man who suffers on a cross, gives us permission to name our own pain and be honest about our struggles, heartaches and losses. This could be just as -- if not more -- important than the sometimes-chosen Lenten disciplines of giving up things like chocolate or booze. 

It's Ash Wednesday. I'm reminded that everything and everyone that I love is here temporarily. I remember those who have died and that I still miss. I think about how to acknowledge these realities and still live and love fully. I know that Easter is coming. I trust that death is not the last word.


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