Guest writer: Grace Pritchard Burson is an Episcopal priest and single mom currently serving the Anglican Church of All Saints by the Lake in Dorval, Quebec. She is also a gardener, writer, and certified birth doula.
Twelve years ago on Ash Wednesday, I was sitting in the pediatric intensive care unit of Yale New Haven Hospital with my newborn son. He had been born at home five days earlier, so being in the hospital had not been part of the plan. I had barely slept since the birth, and was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life. He was recovering from the jaundice, dehydration, and unexplained apnea that had caused the hospitalization, but it had been a very scary few days. My rector brought us ashes and communion, but when it came time for the imposition of ashes, although I gladly received them myself, I couldn’t face having them put on Peter. He had almost died on Monday night, and I distinctly remember clutching him to my chest and thinking, “You can’t have him, God! He’s not even baptized yet!”
Seven Ash Wednesdays later, serving at my second parish, I was briefly home for dinner between giving out ashes on the local university campus and preaching at an ecumenical evening service. Peter – who at that point had never been to Ash Wednesday services, not because I was reluctant to have him attend, but because it had never made sense logistically – saw me with my little pottery bowl of ashes and the black cross on my forehead, and demanded some of his own. I sat him down and tried to explain what Ash Wednesday was all about; he was impatient with my rambling about sackcloth and stardust, and just wanted to get the ashes already, Mom!
And of course, as I smeared the dark, oily paste on his forehead, I could not help but remember that moment in the hospital room. I’m not sure I was any more ready to let my son go than I was when he was a newborn. But he has been baptized – marked on the forehead with oil, rather than ashes, and sealed as Christ’s own for ever – and he belongs to God, not to me.
One of the ways that my parenting and my priesthood resonate together is in my understanding of God as a parent who is willing to radically let go. Unlike Isaac on the mountain, God’s only-begotten Son was not spared from death, and I can only imagine how God’s heart must have broken, not only in suffering and dying on the cross, but in experiencing that death as the loss of a child.
On that Ash Wednesday in 2015, my second-grader was not interested in any of this deep theologizing; he only knew that there was power in those ashes in my hands, and that he wanted to experience it. And as much as it terrifies me as a mother, as a priest, it gives me joy to see him embrace these symbols and throw himself headlong into this strange, rich, challenging life of faith.