I drop the kids off at the nursery. Miraculously, the toddler is distracted long enough for me to slip out. The baby loves the nursery, so there is no push-back from him. My husband, the pastor, is dressed in purple. This morning, he was debating between black and purple. I helped him choose purple, because the poor man’s black pants were too faded for his new black shirt. Ash Wednesday. This is my first experience of having the ashes placed on my head. This is my husband’s first experience of administering the ashes. I enter the sanctuary alone, a bit lost without tots in my arms or clinging to my legs. Being a pastor’s wife, you get used to sitting alone during the services. A girl in the mom’s group makes room for me to slide in beside her. “This is my first Ash Wednesday service,” she says. “Mine too,” I respond with a bit of an internal sigh. Maybe I’m not entirely alone. A third friend slides in beside us. We smile apologetically to the other occupants of the pew who are having to shift again. I feel a sense of sisterhood. This is a first since my husband and I moved to this state three years ago. Three years is a long time to be lonely.
I see my husband up front. I appreciate our decision on the purple shirt. He looks very “Eastery.” Black would have been too somber. But, then again, it is Ash Wednesday. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It would have also been appropriate. I reflect on the beheading of the 21 Egyptian Christians. Interestingly enough, I finished reading The Book Thief last night also. This has been a week of extreme awareness of mortality. Still, I go into the service blindly. I am told that this is the senior pastor’s least favorite service. I can’t seem to understand why. It is important to come face-to-face with our own sinfulness, right? To see that we are only mortal, in need of a Savior. He must just be a little too optimistic, I assume. Too feel-good.
I am not sure at what point I am blind-sided by the power of the awareness of death, but it hits me like a two-by-four over the head. I stare at the stain glass image of Christ above the altar. My eyes swim as my heart sinks. I will die. My children will die. My husband will die. One day, every single soul in this sanctuary will be taken from these bodies. My children, both under the age of two, will face death because of this stupid broken, fallen world that we live in. Eventually, this planet will cycle through its current population of humans to host a new population, who think, like we do, that they are invincible.
We stand up to sing a hymn. Dang it, where are the tissues in this sanctuary? We sing “What Wondrous Love is This,” one of my favorites. My spirit hovers over the line that says, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.” I am perplexed by this word choice. Obviously, the writer is speaking of eternity after death, but he refers to this as freedom from death. And then my heart leaps with epiphany at this realization: In death, and only in death, we are to be liberated from death. And this is the work of the Cross. The Cross, that in 40 days we will celebrate, will open up the opportunity for us to find freedom from the death that we face tonight, this Ash Wednesday. I am terrified of death. Terrified to the point that it can become a preoccupation, an obsession. But within this gem of a hymn, I find a grounds for liberation from this fear. I can find freedom from my fear of death within death itself, for death is what will usher me into eternity. It is there, that I will indeed sing on, unfettered by the earthly power of death. My mom-companions and I approach the front of the church for the ashes. I am horrified at myself, the pastor’s wife, ugly-crying all the way up the main aisle of the sanctuary. I allow the youth pastor to rub the ashes on my forehead, my first ashy cross, and I make my way to my seat. My companions dab their eyes, and I ask for a tissue. We sit there, ugly-crying together, taking in this strange ceremony that holds up a magnifying glass to something that no one really wants to think about. But it is not simply for the sake of making us look willy-nilly at the fact that we will all die and that we all sin. No, we will go from dust to dust, but from dust, we will ascend to glory, where we will no longer be haunted by the shadowy fingers of the grave. We come to this service with the awareness of the victory that has been won, and in hope of the ultimate victory to come. Death will meet its demise, and we will sing on of His Wondrous love. I look up to my husband and smile, once again glad that we opted for the purple over the black.