From the YMI Director: Ash Wednesday
When I was a chaplain serving in a hospital, my favorite day all year was Ash Wednesday. Previously, I’ll admit that Ash Wednesday never really meant that much to me. But all of that changed at the hospital.
A hospital is a place where people come and hope to be healed… or at least, made better. Many are patients for only a brief time, and then return to their normal lives. But others meet different fates: long stays, complications from surgery, infections that beat the antibiotic cocktails. And yes, even death.
In this place, where so much focus is on healing, it was sometimes hard for the staff when they would “lose” a patient. Death was a part of the daily reality, and most seasoned docs, nurses, and support staff were accustomed to such loss. But even so, the work of life-and-death takes its toll. As chaplains, the patients and families—most of whom we only saw for a brief time—received a good chunk of our focus (and rightfully so). But we quickly learned that the group of people with whom we could have the most continual care was our hospital staff. The staff was our church.
They were often too busy to chat, of course, as they cared for their patients (and rightfully so). But every so often, around the edges, we would have meaningful interactions:
“How are things going on your floor? I heard that that patient was being kind of rough on you.”
“I know the patient in bed 8 last week meant a lot to you. How have you been doing since his death?”
“How can I help with that family of Mrs. Jones in room 3? There are a lot of them.”
It was holy work, reminding the staff that their well-being was just as important as the patients’. And it was a fact which most of them would selflessly deny. Doctors and nurses take charge; they need to. They have to be in control of their patients, and therefore of their own emotions; indeed, their job requires it of them. Or else… things could go differently for their patients. It’s a lot of pressure.
But on Ash Wednesday, things were different. We were sent out to our floors with our little sooty bowls and moistened paper towels, with the express purpose of reaching the entire staff to see who would like to receive ashes. And for folks who fight off death on behalf of their patients, the very overwhelming majority willingly bowed their heads to receive the little prayer and the dark cross. These people, I learned, needed to remember: they too were but dust, and to dust they would one day return.
The ashes were a reminder of something else, too. Feeling out of control is difficult. And it is a feeling that much of the medical team would rather push off. (And if we’re honest with ourselves, so would the rest of us. It is not a fun feeling.) But on Ash Wednesday, as we would walk around the hospital and see so many in the hallways, on the floors, in the elevators, in the cafeteria, wearing the cross of ash… it was a tangible reminder that, even in the hospital, only God truly knows the ways of life and death. It was a visible mark, a very tangible reminder to all of us of who is actually in control. The rest of us do our best, of course—and peoples’ lives depended upon it—but the little black crosses led to little nods of recognition among strangers: a reminder of who was holding all of us in an otherwise stressful place.
Beloved of God, is it hard for you (I’m looking at you, you service-profession folks) to remember that God has got you, even in your woundedness? If the pandemic has taught all of us anything, it’s that being out of control is just a breath away, even to the point of death. As we emerge from that season of our lives, and as we help our young people do the same, may we remember who (and Whose) we are. As we all continue on our way in this Lenten season, God walks with us in both the green pastures, and in the barren places of dust and ash. May we feel that presence as we journey onward together.
On the journey with you,