Ash Wednesday, St. Clement's Episcopal Church, 2014


When I began my work as a pediatric chaplain I was astonished to learn that there was only one religious service offered each year--Ash Wednesday.  The Roman Catholic priest who served the hospital explained that other services had been attempted but Ash Wednesday was the only service that people actually showed up for.  

I was somewhat incredulous.  No Christmas?  No Easter?  Just Ash Wednesday?  

And, believe it or not, it was quite literally the best attended Ash Wednesday liturgy I have ever experienced.  Hundreds of people came--patients, families, staff.  Those who could not attend the noon day service knew that we would come to each floor of the hospital carrying our ashes and inscribe a dusty cross upon anyone who requested one.     

I was literally stopped in the hallway again and again.  Do you have ashes?  Do you have ashes?  Can we still get ashes?  

Yes.  Yes.  And, yes.  

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as I carefully swept my thumb down and then across the solemnly presented forehead.

That was it.  A liturgy consisting of a mere 11 words and a single liturgical action.  

It could have felt out of context.  It could have felt like a mechanical action devoid of meaning.  But, it didn’t. 

The context  was a place which averaged two deaths a week.  The action was each pulse of an artery, every IV placed, the sweep of mops, and every carefully inscribed note in medical charts heavier than the lives they chronicled.  The liturgy of breath and hope, of death and resurrection.  

Is it any wonder then that nurses would crowd around as I carried my small pouch of ashes?  

Each to each and one by one.  In a hospital containing thousands, the only ministry that day, barring emergencies, was the administration of the ashes.

I have long imagined that part of the inspiration to receive ashes in this setting was the desire to be reminded that death does not win, that there is something more and greater.  That when providers are faced with the reality that not all lives can be saved they might be reminded that we all face the same limits of our mortality.  There are times when breath cannot be breathed back into the body and I imagined that the ashes served as a reminder of God’s care when those we have loved or served move beyond our care.  

From dust to birth, from birth to life, from life to dust.  

We could stop here, we could sit with that truth of dustness of ashness of the reality that  we come of the earth and return to the earth and that those we do not leave will leave us.  

But, that’s not the end of the story.  

Because those ashes trace the same line as the chrism of our baptism.  The oil traced in cruciform and the ashy remnants of our celebration cannot be separated.  Life and death juxtaposed in the creases and wrinkles and pores of our foreheads.

Ashes and oil, oil and ashes.  The themes of baptism and Ash Wednesday intermingle--restoration, reconciliation, community.  We are the household of God, and, in wearing these ashes, we are called to remember the mandate that concludes the baptismal liturgy

“We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith
of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with
us in his eternal priesthood.”

There is work to be done.  

And thus, in this moment, I imagine something new.  Those nurses, those doctors, the staff, the patients and the families.  They carried their ashes amongst the tiny inhabitants of the neonatal intensive care unit, they pulled down surgical caps, adjusted wires and tubing, soothed and comforted, listened and worked.  Those who bore ashes stood watching and waiting and weeping.  The quick anointing with earth in the rush of the hallway became a reminder of their calling.  Those ashes were ashes of new life, ashes of promise and of hope.  

In the hospital, there were hundreds carrying those ashes--and now I see more clearly that in the cross they carried, they shared in the eternal priesthood, shared in joy and sorrow, shared the burden, shared the pain and shared the hope.  In those ashes there was the reminder that we may have nothing but we possess everything.  

We possess everything, we have all that we need, and we do not stand alone.  

Do you believe it?  Do you believe that the ashes can make us whole?  

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.  

There is work to be done and we shall do it together.  

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