Worship on Ash Wednesday was never a favorite experience for me. I thought of it as a gloomy and depressing event in the church year. The symbolism of the cross and the language of confession and repentance reminded me too much of a theology which defined us all as worthless wretches who must grovel for God’s love and forgiveness.
Last year, I participated in the imposition of the ashes with several children. As I had my forehead marked with ashes by a child and then in turn applied them to another child, words from the book of Matthew floated through my head. “Jesus said we must become like a child to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 18:3-4) I began to wonder what it meant to become like a child. How could I see Ash Wednesday with the eyes and heart of a child?
I think this reimagining starts with my theology of childhood. I believe that we are all born in relationship with God. We are all beloved children of God, not worthless wretches. I also believe children are often more aware and open to their relationship with God. In the liturgy of the Children’s Worship program, we say, “God is present at all times inside us and in the whole universe.” Suddenly, I begin to see Ash Wednesday, and Lent, in a new light.
We often talk about Lent as a time to deepen our relationship with God, to come closer to God. We give up things to make space for God. We start a new spiritual practice to make space to commune with God. Maybe what allows a child to be more aware and open to God is that they have the “space” for God. Maybe we are all born with lots of space for God, but we begin to fill it up with other stuff (all that stuff we are trying to get rid of or push to the side during Lent). I don’t want to imply that we are missing something when we are born and that is why we have space. I believe we are born whole and the space is an integral part of who we are. I think of it as where the Breath of God moves with us and through us.
Using this idea of that I have squished too much in my space for God, I am able to transform my view of Ash Wednesday and Lent. If I want to become more like a child, Lent becomes an opportunity to reconnect with my space, and Ash Wednesday becomes the ritual where I begin this process. The language of confession and repentance becomes about acknowledging that I have junked up the space that is within me with too much baggage: hurts unforgiven, unkind thoughts, and misplaced priorities.
I will never get rid of all my baggage. At least it is not something that will happen in one Lent, but over a lifetime of Lents. However, I know that I can get rid of some of it. I have pushed out the old theology that was getting in the way of my connection to God. I have cleared a little space. I can feel the Breath of God flow through me with a little more ease.