Ash Wednesday in the desert

Just after 6am this morning I pulled onto Thompson Peak Parkway in Scottsdale, Arizona, and headed to St. Patrick Community Church, one of 40 Catholic parishes in the diocese of Phoenix. Standing in the dark, two lines of people, all wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart, already had formed in front of 2 tables placed outside in the church courtyard.

When it was my turn to receive the ashes on my forehead, the young woman placing the ashes said, “Good morning, sir. Will you renounce a life of sin and believe the Gospel?”

“I will,” I answered, as she moved her gloved-hand across the table and traced a cross on my forehead using a 6-inch swab.

“God bless you,” she said.

“God bless you, too,” I answered.

Ash Wednesday starts the 40 days of Lent. It is a day to remember our mortality. We remember that dust we are and to dust we shall return. Many of those standing in the darkness outside St. Patrick’s looked retired. I stood there thinking of my mortality, as surely those in line with me must have thought about theirs.

A year ago, I received the imposition of ashes at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Urbana, IL. That day there was a young mother standing in line to receive ashes. She held a baby girl, 3 or 4 months old at most. I watched the priest trace the sign of the cross on the mother’s forehead. I wondered if the mother would have ashes put on her baby’s forehead. Surely she won’t, I thought. I didn’t want a black cross on that baby’s forehead.

But just then, the mother lifted her baby up and the priest put a black cross on her tiny forehead. The little baby did not make a peep.

Since I was standing just behind the mother and baby, I wanted to say, “No, don’t do that.” I did not want to think of that precious baby ever dying.  But, of course, that is the reality of all humankind and the whole point of the Ash Wednesday ritual.

Years ago, a man at the church where I served, knew the baby that his wife had chosen to carry had a congenital disease that would cause the baby to die within minutes of birth. That proved to be true. When the baby was born, the parents wanted me at the hospital so I could bless the child, read Scripture and make the sign of the cross over the baby. In effect, administer last rites.

It was midnight when the physician who delivered the child exited the room and I entered it. There was the mother and father and little child who weighed just 2 pounds. The child was alive and breathing, but barely. His little lips moved as he breathed. He was a beautiful baby lying on his mothers chest. The nurse in the room said he wouldn’t live long, and he didn’t. In just under 20 minutes, the baby died.

While the baby still was alive, I read some Bible verses I had chosen, said a prayer and made the sign of the cross over that tiny human. A minute after I finished, the young nurse put her stethoscope over the baby’s heart, looked at the mother who held him on her chest and whispered, “He’s gone.”

Days later I preached the baby’s funeral and officiated at his graveside service, where I stood beside a casket not much bigger than a shoebox. At the grave I said, “From dust we came and to dust we shall return.”

Today as I drove out of the St. Patrick Community Church parking lot in Scottsdale – now wearing an ashen cross on my forehead – I remembered back to making the sign of the cross over the 2-pound baby boy that lived just 20 minutes. And though I have very few answers on how to handle the death of a child, it occurred to me the difference between living 20 minutes or 90 years is insignificant in light of eternity.

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality, no matter the span of our life. The cross I wear today is a reminder that this mortal life does not go on forever. After beginning the 40-day Lenten journey with having an ashen cross traced on my forehead, I pulled onto the 101 Phoenix Freeway and headed north to the Scottsdale condo where Jennifer and I are staying for a few weeks. As the rising sun begin to awaken the desert, I prayed, “Most merciful Father, I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have not genuinely loved myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. For the sake of your son Jesus Christ be merciful to me and forgive me on this Ash Wednesday, that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your name.”