Not many kids came to our youth program on Ash Wednesday. Some were scared away by the temperatures outside, which dipped below zero; 0thers by the serious evening worship service that would interrupt their usual scavenger hunts and Wallyball games.
But a few showed up for a promised opportunity to play with fire.
I taught them a little about what Lent means, and we each wrote on a piece of paper something we wanted to burn that was separating us from God, as a ritual to begin the season. Then we went out to the church breezeway and crushed up last year’s palm branches. We threw all the papers and palms into a big soup pot from the church kitchen and lit the whole mess on fire. Smoke rose up in the frigid air and we stood around poking at the embers until the red light came out of them. Then we lugged the pot upstairs to the kitchen, sifted the ashes down and sprayed a little Pam on them to make them sticky.
Who needs a priest when you have four middle schoolers to help prepare for Ash Wednesday?
That night, we went home not only with ash on our foreheads, but reeking of smoke. Some grown-ups said the church smelled like their college dorm rooms. Others were reminded of Boy Scout campfires. I myself remembered the Orthodox churches I visited in Israel, their air so thick with the smell of candle wax and incense, you could hardly take a deep breath without choking on particulates.
Now my car smells like smoke, and my coat and mittens, too. But I don’t care. Whenever anything really important happens in your life, you come out the other side smelling different. You smell like the hospital where you got your new heart, or the sterile nursery flowers laid on the coffin of a beloved. You smell like the cologne your husband wore at the wedding or your baby’s milky breath. It only seems right that, when we burn something from the past that needs to be let go, the odor of regret mixed with hope should linger long enough to remind us we are no longer the people we used to be. In some small way, God has extinguished a dangerous flame in us, or cleansed with fire an impurity of the heart.
I hope, when those kids got home last night, their parents sniffed them lovingly like they were puppies, and wondered at the fragrance of mercy that rubbed off on them.