Aidan Davies bared his teeth at the cement lion, which guarded the steps to the church. The lion snarled back and pawed the air. Davies hefted his projectile, took aim, released, and the snowball exploded on the lion’s face. Defeated, the beast slunk back to his dozing pride in the corner of the boy’s imagination. A triumphant Davies took the steps three at a time and entered the narthex.
He knew that today was special because he was in church on a weekday. I even got to miss the bus this morning, he thought as he stepped into the sanctuary. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in pre-dawn stillness, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. Davies looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. I guess no one came. Sighing, he glanced at his watch.
“Aidan,” a voice boomed from the sacristy door, “I thought you were coming.” Davies looked up and smiled at his father. Alastor Davies met his son halfway down the aisle and pulled him into an embrace. Aidan buried his face in the soft silk of Alastor’s purple stole, and his short arms got lost in the folds of his father’s surplice. “Doesn’t look like anyone is coming this morning,” Alastor said. “We should probably get you to school.”
Aidan extricated himself from the hug and stepped back. “But what about the service?”
“It’s just the two of us. I think your math class is more important.”
Aidan scowled. “One-quarter plus one-eighth is three-eighths. See, I already know how to do fractions. And I want to wear my ashes to school.”
Alastor couldn’t help but grin at his son. Aidan’s scowl softened into an expression of earnest, insistent innocence that only ten-year-olds can pull off. “Well, I guess missing one hour of fourth grade won’t do too much damage,” said Alastor with mock resignation. Then he winked at his son conspiratorially: “We can stop for pancakes on the way. Just don’t tell your mother.”
The pair processed to the altar rail hand in hand. Kneeling together, Alastor handed Aidan a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer. Aidan read the lessons aloud, determined not to stumble on any of the big words. “Do you know what fasting is, son?” Alastor asked after finishing the Gospel lesson. “It’s when you don’t eat for a long time,” said Aidan.
“Right,” chuckled his father, “but it’s more than that. We fast in order to make room for God in our lives. We are so full of all kinds of things all the time that we often forget that God is the one who should be filling us. When we fast we intentionally open up a hole for God to fill. And the more parts of us that God fills, the better we are. So, can you think up something to give up to make a space for God this Lent?”
“Can I give up giving up stuff?” Aidan said. Alastor raised an eyebrow. Aidan retracted quickly, “Just kidding. How about I give up irritating Brigid?”
“I’m sure your sister would appreciate that. Alright, are you ready for the ashes?” They rose and walked to the altar. Aidan stood on his tiptoes to see the ashes in a small glass bowl sitting on the fair linens. The ashes were made from the dried fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday. They were gritty and a few shades lighter than black. Aidan held his breath and closed his eyes. His father knelt down and swept the hair off of Aidan’s forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” Alastor whispered. Then he scraped his thumb gently in two lines, vertical and horizontal. Bits of ash fell on Aidan’s nose, and Alastor brushed them off. Aidan let out his breath.
“Your turn,” said Alastor, and he offered the glass bowl to his son.
“You mean…I get to do yours?”
“I hope you will.”
Aidan took the bowl in trembling hands and dabbed his thumb in the ashes. For a moment, his imagination sprinted to moon rocks and volcanoes. Then it returned, and Aidan looked up at his kneeling father. He scraped the vertical line. “Remember that you are dust.” He scraped the horizontal line. A few silent seconds passed. Alastor whispered, “And to dust…”
“And to dust you shall return,” Aidan finished. They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Alastor pulled his son into a second embrace, and Aidan left an ashy thumbprint on the back of his vestments.
Suddenly, the sun crested the stained glass window. Blues and purples and reds and yellows sparkled on the altar rail and choir stalls. The riot of color danced down the chancel steps, and the cement lion roared a salute to the morning.
Fifteen years later, someone asked Aidan Davies when he knew he was going to be a priest. “I think some part of me knew that Ash Wednesday morning,” he said. “Not the part that does the thinking. I didn’t know in my mind. I knew in the part that helps you catch your balance when you’re slipping on ice or that lets you know when it’s time to get up when you haven’t looked at the clock yet.
“I knew in that deep place inside. I knew in the space that God filled that day, but which got buried soon after and took a dozen years to excavate.”