Bishop Paul Marshall
[Frst published in the February 2012 edition of Diocesan Life, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem]
In a few weeks it will be that time again.
What will you be thinking? How do you suppose people the age of toddlers, teens, seniors, and so on will hear the Ash Wednesday words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return?” We will all hear them as we gather later this month, February 22, for the beginning of Lent, and it might be interesting to imagine for a moment what you and the people next to you could be thinking. Here are some possibilities that occur to me.
Three to six
I suspect that for young children, three to six years old, going up to the rail and being smeared with ash is a new part of their exploring and experiencing the world. The words may not mean very much, but doing all this with parents or grandparents says that something important is going on, a part of what it means to be big. Impressions are being stored, and the intent to be big is forming. This is a bank of experience that cannot be made up later.
Six to twelve
For a six-to-twelve year-old, busily gaining competences in the world but also wondering if they can make it, the words may have some meaning to add to the by-now familiar act of coming up, kneeling down, and being smudged. By this time a great-grandparent or other important figure has died, and the years of awe are tainted with other, darker, realities.
How good to be in a place where this is not denied, and people can be open about reality without freaking out! The calmness of it all. We accept reality and also go forward. As the child’s conscience develops during this period, the calm acceptance of responsibility and comforting words of forgiveness provide a note of balance. Taking on a Lenten discipline of some appropriate kind can be a way of gaining the “mastery” in life that this age group seeks.
For teens, life’s big question is “who am I?” with “what can I become?” as a close second. Perhaps the last thing teens want to hear is that they are mortal and limited, but they do know about frustration and perhaps rage against it as they seek to become their own person. Perhaps in the midst of that they can also hear that even when they are most alienated they are still God’s person. Finding out who they are involves taking moral responsibility on their own—and beginning to experience that they can mediate as well as receive grace.
Adults through middle age
If we can generalize about adults from their twenties through middle age, big questions form about the ability to love and be loved. Questions of vocation and of financial survival enter along with reproduction and the increasing interest in “what it all means.”
The other side of the coin of the downturn in the economy is that some people are sensing the difference between having and being and are re-examining what it means to be human. Remembering one’s dustiness is remembering that he who dies with the most toys is still dead, and that nobody on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at work. Repentance for adults may be about choosing meaning, maintaining balance.
Older adults are seeing their parents die. That is profoundly sad, but not unanticipated. The shock is that one’s friends are dying off. The world is becoming a lonelier place. The concept of being dust that we’ve lived with all our lives comes closer to home: I start to feel the dust, and some of it is in my hip joints. I can and--I suspect--will die. How do I tell the story of my life? How will I use the time I have left? Will I choose to contribute what I can or will I withdraw?
Looking for the end
And there are those who are waiting to die. For them the words may speak hope and release. They are given little permission to have or express their feelings in our life-affirming culture, and they are a little tired of hearing about plans for their 115th birthday party when they know they are done and now wish for stillness and rest. At least God is honest with them and will be there to receive them. It is OK to say “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” These ashes may be the only affirmation they get this season as they prepare for the last transition, and the agèd eagles spread their wings.
The gifts of Lent
One sentence in a long liturgy, a liturgy about mortality, repentance, forgiveness, and rebuilding the self, and so many ways to hear and respond. These reflections have been in the long run about my awareness that while we are all so different, we are all embraced in a single set of symbols that carry us through life, and beyond it.
As you look at the people around you in worship (and that’s OK to do!), let your imagination go and see if one of the gifts of Lent isn’t increased empathy and prayer for those who stand around the table with us. See if the other gift is not a greater sense of our own belonging to the human community that Christ came to redeem.