War Prayers and Baby Voices

A reflection for Ash Wednesday.

This past Sunday, after serving communion and before we wrapped up our worship time, Fr. David prayed a prayer for a time of war. Our parish, as do so many I’m sure, has a personal connection to Ukraine with one of our folks having hosted an exchange student from Ukraine several years ago. They had been texting with her and learning of the fear and danger they were experiencing first hand. As Fr. David prayed a young boy was asking his mom, in the not-quiet-stage-whisper of a two year old, a question. And in my head and soul, the violence of war and the sweet and innocent voice of a child collided and created an eruption of emotion I was not prepared for. I did my professional best to pull myself together and complete the post-communion prayer and final blessing, but my voice was breaking.

In years past, as I served in parishes that also had a school, we would do ashes with the children in chapel on Ash Wednesday and I think the most difficult thing I have ever have to say as a priest is to look these sweet children in the face as I marked their forehead with the ashes and say, “remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” I have never been able to do it without my voice breaking. I don’t know that I’ll place ashes on any child’s forehead this year, but I certainly hope that I do.

Did you expect that last statement? Do you find it harsh that I hope to say this to children? Let me explain myself. Yes, this statement is to remind us of our mortality. Yes, it is heartbreaking to imagine the death of any child. But what we observe, what we celebrate, on Ash Wednesday isn’t death but life, the very life breathed into us from God our Creator, the gift of life offered us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God chose to create us, all human beings, out of the dust of the earth, to give us a special place within God’s creation, to call us beloved children, to bestow on us the gift of relationship and love, grace and compassion, intellect and will. Saying we are dust and to dust we will return isn’t a degrading statement of our value but a reminder of just how valuable God made each and every one of us.

Ash Wednesday is both a reminder of our mortality – God is God and we are not – and an invitation to return to God here and now, to let God restore and redeem us to the full life we are created to live in relationship with God, to remind us to teach our children they are God’s beloved children, too. We experience both joy and suffering in this amazing life God has given us. It is something I cannot fully comprehend. But I do know that the true joy of knowing Whose we are isn’t upended by suffering; the full meaning of Easter can only be realized by experiencing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as well.

I hope and pray that I never become so callused by the violence in this world that my heart doesn’t hurt when I witness it. I’m grateful that folks hear the breaking of my heart in my voice. In the darkness, a light shines; in the midst of a prayer about war, an innocent voice breaks forth, reminding us to live and to love as God intends.

Remember Whose and who you are this day. And then remind someone else who may have forgotten.

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