My son is 9 now...this is a story from when he was 4, and is something I remember every year on Ash Wednesday:
For the previous two or three days, Kiddo had been looking forward to Ash Wednesday. He couldn't stop talking about going to church and having the pastor put the ashes on his forehead. He told his friends at daycare, he told his friends at preschool, and he couldn't stop telling Mommy and Daddy how excited he was about the ashes.
Our church has two Ash Wednesday services--one at 5 PM, and the other at 7. We had planned on going to the 7:00 service as a family, and I was scheduled to assist with the imposition of ashes at that service. That afternoon, though, I got a call from Sweetie--she was 8 months pregnant and had been fighting a pretty good cold--saying that she just didn't think that she'd be able to make it through a worship service.
I couldn't just take Kiddo to the 7 PM service myself, since I was going to be up front, and we knew that Kiddo would have none of sitting with someone else. And we also knew that if he didn't go to church, he'd be crushed. Sooooooo...I left work early, picked him up from daycare, and took him to the 5 PM service.
On our way, he asked, "Daddy, why will we put ashes on our forehead tonight?"
Well, we had talked about death before...the subject had first come up when we were talking about Easter some time ago...and he understood the concept that only Jesus had come back to life, but once we were dead, we would live in heaven with God, but wouldn't be alive again on earth. And, more importantly, he was fine with that understanding. So, rather than using the more generic answer of "to help us remember how much God loves us," I decided to expand it a little bit.
"It's to help us remember that even though someday we'll die, that God loves us..."
Kiddo finished my sentence for me. "...and we'll be in heaven with God. And Jesus." (I decided to hold off on dealing with his 4 year-old tritheism...all in good time.) =)
He seemed satisfied with it all. And so we got to church, and the service began. There was a responsive chanting of Psalm 51, followed by a time of confession, and then came the imposition of ashes. We were about 2/3 of the way through the psalm when suddenly, Kiddo grabbed my leg and looked up at me. His lip was trembling.
And then he began to cry. The heartrending, plaintive, authentic cry of a child in anguish.
I sat down, took him on my lap, held him close, and whispered, "what's wrong? Is the music too sad?"
Looking at me with a scared, sad, expression in his eyes, he whispered back, "I don't want the ashes on my forehead."
I was dumbstruck. This had been the highlight of his week! I asked him, "why not?"
He looked me in the eyes.
"Daddy, I don't want to die."
I almost burst into tears right then and there. Somehow in our conversation, he had internalized that having the ashes put on his forehead would make him die.
I immediately felt like the worst dad in the world. Ever. I had made my son think that he was going to die. And worst of all, that I would let him.
I held him tightly, and rocked him, and whispered assurances that this was just something to help us remember how much God loves us, and that it was not going to make us die.
As Psalm 51 came to a close and the rest of the congregation intoned "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise," I wiped the tears from Kiddo's eyes, and he smiled.
"Okay, Daddy. I want to remember. I want to go get the ashes now."
Later that evening, when I told the story to our pastor as we got ready for the 7:00 service, he turned to me and said, "You know, those tears meant your son gets it. In his way, he gets the meaning of Ash Wednesday better than the majority of the other people in the pews."
He was right.