As a child, I was somewhat confused about death. I blame Star Wars.
The original Star Wars movie came out when I was three; seeing it with my family remains one of my earliest memories. My meditation on the movie continued over a comic-book adaptation of the story that I read over and over until it finally fell apart from over-reading a couple of years later. My first conscious experience of “death” was Obi Wan Kenobi cut down by Darth Vader in a dramatic lightsaber duel—and his subsequent disappearance.
Thus, I thought that’s what everybody did when they died: their body just vanished like Ben Kenobi’s.
Around that time, my maternal grandfather passed away. I was so puzzled when my mom and dad told me that they were going to the viewing; I distinctly remember wondering, “Since he disappeared, what is it that they are going to go see…?”
Parents might be reluctant to take their children to a service like Ash Wednesday because of its thematic content; the two big things on tap are death and sin. If they’re anything like me at that age, your kids have already been exposed to the concept of death, if only in movies. Indeed, if your kids have seen the virtually obligatory Disney canon, they’ve seen death used as a plot device that turns on them understanding something about it. Think of the shooting of Bambi’s mom or the crushing of Ray the Cajun firefly in The Princess and the Frog.
Since my wife is an Episcopal priest, I’m the parent responsible for taking our two girls to church, managing them in the pew by myself, keeping them attentive (or at least relatively quiet), and answering any questions that might come up. I know what it’s like to get the questions; I’ve handled the questions (including an age-appropriate explanation of the whole “Bathsheba” incident). And, yes, even as a theologically-trained biblical scholar I find myself fumbling for words or saying, “uh—I’ll get back to you on that…” But what I have learned is that the kids already have questions about these things; what they hear in the service provides them an opportunity to ask about a topic they’ve encountered but don’t understand. Death is one of those.
I never asked my parents about death or about the whole “disappearing” thing. But I kind of wish I had—or that they would have discussed it with me. I had to figure it out. I’ve tried to have these discussions so my girls won’t be in the same boat I was. Now—there’s something to be said for sheltering your kids from graphic depictions of death and violence. However, these unpleasant realities are facts of the world we live in. There’s a difference between sheltering kids from content versus sheltering them from concepts. They don’t need to see the pictures, but they do need to understand what happens in the world around them.
With the topics we don’t feel comfortable talking to our kids about—let’s just call out death and sex as two of the biggies—we can cling to the illusion that if we don’t bring them up, our kids will never know about them. But the combination of pop culture and conversation with friends make this a losing strategy in the long term. If you don’t do the educating, the entertainment industry will. My preference has always been to have brief periodic age-appropriate conversations about big topics like these. Clear and honest conversation on difficult topics is way better than glossing over them in silence and praying for ignorance.
Thus, Ash Wednesday services and the resulting questions provide an opportunity for clear, honest communication with your kids to clear up misunderstandings about life and death—or sin—they may have absorbed from movies, TV, or friends.
However, another major piece of parental uncomfortability with Ash Wednesday is all about sheltering but isn’t focused on the kids. It’s about us. We’re trying to shelter ourselves.
Ash Wednesday is a difficult but necessary part of the Christian proclamation. It wrestles with stuff that we work very hard at avoiding. Nobody likes to think about death or sin, but Ash Wednesday puts these things front and center. If there’s anything that I want to avoid more than my own mortality, it’s my kids’ mortality.
My younger daughter was born at the end of February. Her very first trip outside our house was going to the church my wife served for Ash Wednesday. Let me tell you: it’s a cold hard slap of reality to see a cross of ash on the forehead of your newborn. Some members of the congregation were shocked that we even brought her up, and questioned if such a thing was even appropriate. But it is. Death is a part of life. Mortality is a part of reality.
Bringing your kids to Ash Wednesday services means that you will receive the reminder that your kids will die. Some day. Hopefully a very long time from now. I, for one, don’t like to be reminded that my girls will die. But Ash Wednesday confronts me with that fact. The great Anglican spiritual teacher Evelyn Underhill once defined mysticism as the art of bringing the self into union with reality. The mystic—the truly spiritual person—is one who embraces that challenge. And that means facing reality, not fleeing it, and all of its hard edges.
The Gospel calls us to open up our lives, to live honestly in light of what the world is and who God is. The truth of the Gospel means wrestling with truths that we don’t like. There’s a natural inclination to hide them from our kids–and from ourselves. But, through the practices of the Liturgical Year like Ash Wednesday, the church calls us to an integrity about ourselves, about the world around us, and about God.
Only if we’re willing to tell the whole truth about sin and death are we able to tell the whole truth about resurrection.
Bring your kids to Ash Wednesday. Let them see and hear and participate in the Church’s admission of the hard edges of reality: that we sin; that we die. Let them ask you questions about what all of that means. Answer honestly—even if it’s a solemn, heart-felt, “I’ve got no clue…”
Hear the invitation to the keeping of a holy Lent as an invitation to study the hard edges of reality with the conviction that a robust faith helps us grapple with reality as it is, not flee it for more comfortable and comforting fantasies.
Come to hear the truth—for the truth will set you free.