Marks of ash and tears

iron cross at WestminsterMidpoint of the Ash Wednesday service. We have listened to the Word; the crosses have already been marked on foreheads; and we are waiting to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The father of the young family seated in front of us leaves to get his smallest one from the children’s service. When he returns, his little boy runs ahead, right into his mother’s arms. She lifts him to her lap, and he settles, content, his chin nuzzled into her neck. I am seated behind them. His eyes meet mine, and we smile at each other, but then his eyes widen.
He has seen the dark cross on my forehead. He looks past me at my children, each marked with a cross of ash. He pulls back and looks up at his mother’s face. He cannot see her forehead, so he places his small hands on her cheeks and pulls her face down until her ashes, too, are visible to him. In wonder he gently touches his small finger to her forehead, tracing the dark lines there. He pulls his hand away and looks at the dark smudge on his fingertip. “A cross?” he asks. She nods. He looks past her again, at me, my children, the friends next to us. We are all marked with ashes. He pulls aside the hair on his own forehead. “Where’s my cross, Mommy? I want a cross, too.”
She tries to hush him, but he asks again—and again. Soon he is weeping. He is quiet, but tears stream down his cheeks.
After the service, his mother stands, holding him in her arms, and turns to my husband, still wearing the purple and white robes that signify him as one who marked others with ash this night.
“Can you put a cross on his forehead?” she asks.
“I would, but I don’t have the ash anymore,” he answers.
“It’s all right. He just wants someone to mark him with the sign of the cross, and you…” She gestures at the robes.
My husband stands and smiles at the small child. He lifts one hand to the boy’s head and brushes his soft hair to the side. With the thumb of his other hand, he gently rubs the child’s forehead, down and then across.
In my mind I hear, again, the two lines said over each person who received a cross of ashes this day:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Repent and believe the Gospel.”
My husband’s thumb leaves no smudge, but the boy smiles and something glistens on his rounded cheek, a silver line that almost glows when the light hits it just right. It is the trail of his tears, his mark this night, his ash cross, the sign that he has accepted his humanity, his frailty, his need.
May we all accept.
May we all remember.
That we may repent.
That we may believe.
Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
Joel 2:13a

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