Last year on Ash Wednesday I happened to be one of the chaplains on call at our local hospital. It was early afternoon when a nurse called from the maternity ward to ask if I could bring ashes. One of her patients had requested it.
And so I put some ashes in an airtight container (I have since acquired something more appropriate) and I bundled up and headed across town. I confess I was a little nervous as I had not been told just what I would be walking into.
I made my way upstairs and rang the doorbell to be let in. The nurse at the desk greeted me and sent me to a room halfway down the hall. I knocked on the closed door and heard a faint voice invite me in. I entered to find a young woman in the bed, cradling her infant son. She was surround by family: her aunt, her grandmother, her cousin, her sister.
I told this young mother who I was and that I had ashes.
She was overjoyed. She had been in labor all night the night before. She was distressed that she was missing Ash Wednesday and its accompanying rituals. She wanted the ashes for herself. And she said she wanted to get her infant child off to a good start. And so ashes were imposed, one by one, on each and every family member gathered there, including that little one who was but a few hours old. I said good-bye and made my way out. Before I left the hospital, I was greeted by another staff member who knew why I was there. She asked if I would be willing to share ashes with others and then she picked up the phone. Within minutes I found myself in the corner of a busy emergency room where one after another, nurses and doctors broke away from whatever or whoever had been demanding their attention a moment before to pause and receive a cross of ash and to hear the words,
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
And I have to say, this seemed especially resonant in a place where the frailty of life is witnessed day after night after day every day.
Now while it is so, of course, that the tradition of imposing ashes is undoubtedly rooted in the ancient tradition of donning sackcloth and ashes which in another time were signs of profound mourning, I was interested this week to make the connection with ashes as a cleansing agent. Indeed, check out this list of all the ways ashes can be used: to clean laundry, to remove odors, and to wash one’s hair, to name a few.
So while most years I have lived in the certain reminder of mortality in the words we speak over those ashes, maybe it is really this understanding which keeps bringing people back. Perhaps it was precisely this which had a young mother and her family and a whole lot of emergency department medical staff yearning to receive those ashes. Indeed, perhaps it is this:
- Deep down, when we pause to consider it, we recognize our own frailty, which is of course, tied to our mortality.
- And when we are safe to admit it, we surely know our living could and should look and be better than it is.
- To be sure, if we are honest, we are deeply aware that we have been the instruments of broken hearts.
- Of others, yes,
- Of our own, perhaps.
- And certainly of God’s.
- And we yearn for the promise receiving the sign of Christ’s cross traced on our foreheads bears for us all. In touch and sound and residue of ash the promise of grace, forgiveness, a fresh start is ours. Or in the words of a brand new mom last Ash Wednesday: “a good start” for her infant boy.
And in those times when we failed to remember, we can be reminded in the pleading words of today’s Psalm, which I, for one, have come to know by heart:
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
And do not take your holy spirit from me…
I can recite these ancient words certainly because I find my lifelong home in a liturgical tradition which sang these words Sunday after Sunday. But even more than that, they belong to me and all of those who find they speak to our heart’s longing. They speak to my knowing I need to be made clean.
And so this Ash Wednesday I will gather with my congregation and share in this ritual once more. And mid-day I will travel to the hospital and offer this reminder, this gift, this promise to any and all to whom this ritual speaks: to those who yearn once more to hear Christ’s promise of grace and forgiveness in sound and touch and residue of ash.
My prayers join yours this season as we yearn for clean hearts and good starts and fresh starts. May God’s grace and forgiveness be received as gifts which will have their way in our lives and through us in the world. Indeed, may this be so. Especially this year may this be so.
- How does Ash Wednesday speak to you? What place does it have in your faith journey?
- Do you see the ashes as a way of experiencing a ‘fresh start’ or a ‘good start?’ Why or why not?
- If you are so privileged as to be one who traces the cross of ash on the foreheads of others, take a moment to recall those hundreds or thousands or more who have received this gift via your hand. What stories stand out for you? How do they inform your understanding of this day, this ritual, these gifts of God?