Today’s post is by Miriam Schmidt, pastor/priest of All Saints in Big Sky, a shared ministry of the Episcopal and Lutheran (ELCA) Churches in Big Sky, Montana. 

Children know about death. More than we give them credit for. Many kids by the age of 5 or 7 have experienced at least the death of a beloved pet, or even a family member or friend. They know what it is like one day to be able to burrow their face in a cat’s fur, hold their grandfather’s hand, hear the voice of an auntie calling their name, smell the vanilla scent of Nana; then the next day, to feel the sudden wretched absence that comes with death. There is no longer any way to touch or smell or hear or see the physical body of the one who has died.

Children know about death, the aching hole it leaves behind; and if they do not know about it yet, they will soon enough.

So it is important for us, as adults, to find ways to include our children in Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a gift of the church to us all. The day’s simple and stark ritual of ashes speaks honestly of death. We take dirt, ashes of palms, and press them onto each other’s foreheads. We say the old words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

This act might be straight-up depressing, did we not mark the ashes in the shape of a cross. The same cross is marked on the foreheads of the newly baptized. The same cross is inscribed on every Christian forever. With Ash Wednesday’s cross of ashes, we are saying that even in the face of death, our loving God is as close as our skin. Jesus is smudged on us, rubbed into our flesh, so that when we weep with all our hearts for those who have died, we are not alone. God is this close – a cross on our foreheads. So we can live in hope that a God so close will carry us through every death, even our own.

How does your congregation do at involving children in Ash Wednesday? Many children – not to mention their parents – will benefit from some preparation. Perhaps the children can help burn last year’s palms into Ash Wednesday’s ashes after worship on Transfiguration Sunday. On the day itself, maybe children can be invited forward before the Imposition of Ashes to see and touch the ashes for themselves? Can they be allowed to mark their own cross? Or cross another child? Afterwards, on the first Sunday in Lent, can Ash Wednesday’s leftover ashes be brought out again and shown to those who forgot it even was Ash Wednesday, so they can see for themselves.

 This is what we did a few days ago: We traced ashes on foreheads in the shape of the cross. God is as close as the skin on our foreheads. Even in the face of death.