As the primary designer of our community’s worship gatherings, I typically walk through the experience, beforehand, and imagine how the various aspects of the service will be experienced by the people. I intentionally take the perspectives of various people at different points in their spiritual journey while asking myself, “How’s this going to feel for ____?” “Will this connect with ____?”
One perspective I consistently forget to consider is my own.
So I’m placing the mark of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of our community members last week at our Ash Wednesday gathering. And my parents approach me. I rest my blackened thumb on my mom’s forehead and say, “From ashes you have come and to ashes you will return.” I say this to my mom.
I wasn’t prepared for that.
Then my dad steps up and closes his eyes. And I mark a cross on his forehead. I realize I haven’t looked at his forehead for a long time. I realize my dad is aging. I tell the person I can’t imagine living without that he will return to dust. I remind the man I regularly cling to for advice that he is mortal. My heart is startled by my words, like someone else is speaking them.
Minutes later my children – who have been talking about this moment all day with their mom – very seriously and slowly approach me. And as I mark the cross on their soft, pure skin, I whisper, “Turn from your sin and believe the good news: Jesus loves you!” Everything in me is pleading, longing that truths represented in this experience will connect deep within their souls – that they will know the love and freedom that Jesus brings, that they will grow up experiencing Jesus, not just hearing their dad preach about him.
Ash Wednesday is supposed to be about remembering my mortality and my need for a savior. But this year, I couldn’t escape the reality that it is also about the mortality of those I cherish, those I look for for guidance, and those who are looking to me.