Last night members of the Children’s Choir practiced for our Family Ash Wednesday Service. We were in the Chapel for the first time in two years. For some of our participants it was the first time they were in that space. We practiced our songs, and instead of learning an anthem this year, we focused on shorter responses and prayers we can sing and teach one another. We practiced leading prayers, standing up and sitting down, speaking from the microphone, singing together, watching for cues from Mr. Edward. We practiced EVERYTHING! As our time ended, we had one last thing to practice: the imposition of the ashes.
I had my main prop, a bowl of palm ash. As the children dipped fingers and hands into the bowl, their observations took over the lesson. “The ash is so soft.” “Why are there sticks and leaves in the ash?” “Will the ash stay on your fingers forever?” There were giggles and delight as they looked at the black ash coating their skin.
Some of our older students stood back; they were already ash experts. I told the students that next week they would have the opportunity to have a cross drawn on their forehead or their hand as a reminder that Jesus would be with them on the journey ahead. Like everything else, we practiced. I drew the sign of the cross on their hands and foreheads. Then they had the opportunity to try making ash crosses themselves. I have never had so many crosses on my forehead! As each tiny finger traced a cross, and each voice said, “Remember,” the lesson came full circle.
As much as I was teaching our children about this upcoming Lenten journey, they were teaching me. Reminding me that faith is something we have to practice, that it lives as much in the sacred rhythms of worship and community as it does in the words that are spoken. As they joyfully dipped hands into ash, they reminded me that sometimes faith is an experiment that we have to dig our hands into, something that’s a little bit messy.
We closed by singing one of our songs for the season; it is a short Scottish song with God speaking through the singer: “Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger, my love is stronger than your fear. Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised, promised to be always near.”
I was still washing the last bits of dust from my forehead and the song was still echoing in my ears when my phone buzzed with the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine. My heart broke, and my stomach sank. This is another Lent beginning with questions rather than answers, already filled with uncertainty and fear. But isn’t this what we had practiced? Beginning a journey, even when we don’t know the outcome. Wading in, certain of God when we are uncertain of everything else.
Next week we will gather on Wednesday and sing together, pray together, hear God’s word together, and dip our hands and hearts into the messy promise that God will be with us on the journey ahead.