I have read about “thin places,” where people go to sense God’s presence, places where it does seem God feels more palpable. Places in nature or in old structures where people have felt a deep connection with God somehow.
One of those places for me is the railing in the sanctuary. (These are rural, practical folks. Clergy might call it a “table” for the Eucharist, but they see no reason to call this place of holy thanksgiving anything but what it is: a railing.)
It is there that the hands are outstretched for the bread and cup. But it is also the place where they kneel and receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday has become one of my favorite practices in the church. In our congregation’s after school program on that day, each class of children has its time with me in the sanctuary, when I give a simple explanation of the ashes of palms that we swipe onto our foreheads to begin the season of Lent.
Most of them can remember the Holy Week stations of the cross from last year, when they enacted the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and waved the palm branches just as the people did all those years ago. But it is only five days from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. We talk about how quickly we can go from welcoming Jesus to being mean. We can be so good, but then turn around and be angry or naughty. During Lent we ask Jesus to give us steady, loving hearts. We burn the palms and wear the ashes to help us get started in this process.
The young students are solemn and curious, very engaged in this mysterious ritual. Most accept the ashes, but a few refuse them since they have been told they can do so by saying “no, thank you.”
A class of preschoolers skipped and scurried down the aisle to the front pew. Abby* was one of the last, walking with less exuberance than her peers, wearing her little princess dress. Her mother must have let her choose the purple frock with sateen and tulle skirt to wear that day. Her face was screwed up with anxiety, not unusual for this child. Before I could say a word, she blurted, “I don’t want those ashes on me!” I reassured her that we would not make her do it.
After the pastor’s talk, the children were invited to the railing for the imposition of ashes, and obediently remained as quiet as preschoolers can be. Some received them, and others politely declined. I expected a refusal when I reached Abby near the end of the line, but I could see her mustering her courage. She took a deep breath, lifted her chin toward me, earnest and brave. “I think I want them!” I signed the cross in ashes on her forehead before she could change her mind.
Another thin place happens occasionally in the act of teaching. We gather around the stories of God and wonder what they might mean for us. Children often perceive God’s handiwork instinctively. They make connections that we adults miss. Perhaps their perceptions are still “thin” enough to allow the presence of God to be the primary essence in the encounter. Or maybe they are still unguarded, willing to innocently say aloud what their elders might suppress.
Before the evening Ash Wednesday service began, the leader of the fourth and fifth graders told me about the visitor in her class. Cody had attended our program when he was younger, but we haven’t seen him for about three years. In fact, I have known Cody since he was born, having interacted with his family in another ministry. I know that his family struggles to make ends meet. He came with a friend this time, and we were happy to welcome him back.
Sue told the story of the raising of Lazarus.
Afterward, she wondered with her students what might be a reason to hear this story on the first day of Lent. Well, it seemed obvious to the first to respond: this story is similar to the Easter story. In both accounts a stone was rolled away, a man was raised from the dead. Cody was instantly captivated. “I think I want to hear that story!”
Children at the railing, soberly receiving the ashes. Praying for Jesus to change our hearts.
Children in a circle, pondering the story of a God who can give life where there was none.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.