I recently co-officiated for the first time at our parish’s Ash Wednesday liturgy for children. I loved it: our worship retained all the solemnity of the “adult” service, while emphasizing God’s constant offer of forgiveness. Tears sprang to my eyes more than once as I placed a cross of ashes on the forehead of each person who came forward, from infants to elders, inviting each to remember the universal truth, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As I surveyed my fellow creatures of dust during the readings and prayers (no, clergy don’t always focus fully on the liturgy either!), I found that I identified with two groups in particular: squirmy children, and their parents. In the restless little ones, shifting in their seats, refusing to face forward or to stand up for the prayers, remaining tight-lipped through the congregational responses, being distracted by the toys on the Gathering Room’s shelves (just lying there, begging to be picked up!), I saw myself as God must so often see me. Silent when God would have me speak, chattering when God is inviting me to be quiet, distracted by whatever dashes across my path rather than focusing on the One who is the Way. On Ash Wednesday, I knew those wriggling children truly to be my sisters and brothers, and I gave thanks to God for the divine patience that’s been shown me over the years.
I also identified with the parents of those squirmers: the adults who try valiantly to embody God’s patience and compassion as they seek to form their children in the practices of our faith. A whir of thoughts can crowd the mind of a restless child’s father or mother: Is she disturbing our neighbors? Who cares: she’s disturbing me! Why will he sit quietly for table grace and offer bedtime prayers at home and then refuse even to say “amen” in church? Is there a bribe I can offer, or a punishment I can threaten, to spur better behavior? No, that’s probably not quite the right message to send about God’s love….Now where were we in the service, again? My child’s not the only one who’s having trouble paying attention!
It’s a lot to cope with. But the Ash Wednesday liturgy for children offers a response (if not a prescriptive answer) to those parental concerns. Our prayer of confession acknowledges that God “desire[s] that everyone turn away from those things that keep us from knowing your love,” and asks the Lord to “Open our hearts and our minds to your Holy Spirit, that we may know your love forever.”
God calls, “Turn,” and we respond, “Open us.” Because, we trust, that’s what God most wants from us: open hearts that our Creator can fill with love. We pray and worship with our children so that all of us can learn to recognize our Good Shepherd’s voice and to turn away from the things that separate us from Him and from each other. We know that the postures we assume during worship help form us: we stand for the Gospel to honor Jesus, and we sit for sermons so that we can settle in and listen for the divine Word within the preacher’s words. We want our children to practice those postures so that they’ll know that God is always ready and waiting to meet them—not so they can be “well-behaved,” or our worship can be quiet.
You’re already helping your children to turn and be opened, by modeling reverential postures and behavior for them, and by gently enforcing the age-appropriate boundaries you’ve set. So please know that while your immediate concern might be a half-hour or hour-long liturgy, God’s perspective is both longer and broader. God has endless time and patience to keep calling your child, and you, and me back into the divine embrace. You’re doing your part by heeding that call, and helping your child to hear it. Over time, this Lent and far beyond it, God will do the rest.