Tuesday, March 5, 2002

March, 2002 Jacob's first ashes

Jacob, my first grader, received ashes this past Ash Wednesday for the first time. And I wept.
I didn’t expect for it to be such an emotional experience. After all, receiving ashes is not a sacrament, and sometimes children much younger than my son receive them as they stand next to their parents. As a preschooler and kindergartener, though, little Jacob had hid his face behind my leg as I received my ashes, so that the unfamiliar minister could not mark his forehead. This Ash Wednesday, though, Jacob was not with me for Mass. He was with his class, and I was a dozen pews behind him, with the rest of the parents. There would be no leg to hide behind.
            As Jacob approached the sixth grade teacher to receive his ashes, I was one aisle over, in line for my own ashes, watching him.
            Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
            Dust. In moments, the teacher was going to tell my son he was dust, and that he would return to dust someday. The teacher was going to tell Jacob he would someday die. And standing in line to receive my own ashes, I knew she was speaking the truth. But hearing the words repeated over and over as each person before me received his or her ashes, I recognized that I held in my heart the tiniest hope that this phrase wouldn’t be true for my son. That Jacob would somehow beat the system. That he wouldn’t suffer and die like the rest of us. That maybe, if my husband and I could just love him enough, dust to dust would not apply.
            Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
            In his homily, the priest had explained the phrase to the children by saying we are only on Earth a certain amount of time. He had held his hands about three feet apart, emphasizing with each hand the beginning and the end of life. During this life, he said, Jesus wants us to be the very best disciples we can be. The ashes remind us we only have a short time to do this.
            And as I looked at Jacob, now just three children away from receiving his ashes, I suddenly realized that his time to be a disciple had already begun. He was old enough to understand Father’s homily; old enough to understand about life being about 80 years if you’re lucky and possibly much shorter. He was old enough to start being a disciple. 
            And that’s when my tears welled. For there is something wonderful and terrible about watching someone you love become a disciple. Being a follower of Jesus is never easy, if you do it right. And to invite a child to become a disciple is to invite that child to enter into some of the suffering that discipleship requires. Parental love made me want to shield my son from any pain. Christian love called me to help him learn to live his life in a rhythm of continual dying and rising with Christ.
Earlier, on the way to school, Jacob and I had talked about the rice that he and his classmates would have for lunch that day as part of Operation Rice Bowl. The money saved from not buying the regular school menu items would be given to the poor. As I drove, we talked about the circumstances of the children in the world who do not get enough to eat each day. I asked Jacob why he thought we chose to eat just rice, and didn’t simply eat our regular food, and give the same amount of money to the poor. How can your hunger help kids so far away? I asked. Troubled, Jacob thought for a moment, then said that maybe if we were hungry after lunch because of just eating rice, we would understand a little how it must feel to be hungry all the time, and maybe we would help more because of it.
Old enough to understand. Old enough to be a disciple.

And so, my son stepped forward to receive his ashes. And I stood, watching—somehow as both parent and fellow journeyer. Dust to dust, dear Jacob. Life is so short. Live as a disciple.