If you do the math, that means she was just about 8 years old at the time. I was leading my very first Ash Wednesday service, back when I still had that new pastor smell.
I had never learned in seminary how to prepare ashes (add that to the list of about a hundred things I needed to know that I didn't learn in seminary). To be honest, since imposition of ashes was not all that common in my Presbyterian tradition I had only ever participated in three Ash Wednesday services in my whole life - my three years in seminary.
So there I was at the end of marking over a hundred people on the forehead that cold February evening, and I had not thought far enough ahead to figure out how I would get ashes on my own forehead. I turned to this child who had already participated in the service that night by reading from Isaiah 58 -
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungryand to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard."
I motioned her over to me and whispered to her that I needed her to put ashes on my forehead. I don't remember if I knelt or bent over, but I do remember that she put ashes on my forehead as reverently as she could. She has helped in one capacity or another to lead our Ash Wednesday worship every year since.
My colleague in ministry reminds me every year how much he dreads putting ashes on the foreheads of children, and I totally understand where he is coming from. The entire Ash Wednesday service focuses not just on our need to repent of sin, but on the stark reality of our mortality. One has to pause and appreciate that privileged moment any time you put the mark on someone's forehead, look closely into their eyes, and say, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I honestly find it a little more disarming when I say those words and put ashes on the foreheads of my more elderly parishioners, whose funerals I am much more likely to attend in the coming year.
There have been a few years when the last person I have "imposed" ashes on was my husband (a former pastor himself), and each time that happens I am reminded of the line from the Ted Loder prayer that was used at our wedding:
Grant them the grace to forgive each other's failures and faults, and the wisdom to know how and when to release each other into your keeping.
Each time I put ashes on the forehead of children in our congregation, including my own son, I am reminded of the moment of their baptism. While one could think of the waters of baptism as washing away the sins and mortality represented by the ashes, I think of it slightly differently.
Baptism, for me is less about salvation and more about identity, less about the hope to never sin again and more about the knowledge that in spite of our frailty we can live in the hope of God's mercy and forgiveness.
When I talk with my son about the ashes and what they mean (which is actually a pretty easy conversation since children are pretty open/receptive to the cycles of life and the reality that everything that lives dies) I remind him of his baptism as well - that the ashes on his forehead are supposed to remind him that he is human, that he will make mistakes, and that he will need to apologize for those mistakes to other people and to God. But then I remind him of the water that was placed on his forehead as a baby, which should remind him that God's love is stronger than any mistakes he might make. It is a love that won't stop even when his own life on earth does.
Presbyterians don't practice infant baptism exclusively, which is why I had the privilege of baptizing that same child who put the ashes on my forehead 10 years ago when she was confirmed, making the symbolic cycle of confession and forgiveness complete.
I continue to believe, and I think that she would agree, that when we include children in these unique ritual moments they form a stronger connection with the community, with their tradition and with their own faith. It is by hearing, touching, tasting and experiencing these signs of grace and love that they are able to identify them as their own.
For the past few years we have used the following hymn in one way or another in our Ash Wednesday services. It is a beautiful description of what we do this night.
Come ye disconsolate, where ere ye languish,Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts,
Here tell your anguish.
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying.
Hope of the penitent, faceless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter,
"Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure."