OK, enough of the textbook answers. For me, one year in elementary school, Lent meant anxiously awaiting the chance to wear my white Sam&Libby dress shoes that by fashion rules couldn’t be worn until Easter. In sixth grade, Lent meant helping to lead Wednesday evening services with my confirmation class, including a duet I sang with my dad…I got nervous, started singing a measure early, got really embarrassed, and cried from the pulpit. In high school, Lent meant giving up chocolate, soda, and yes, even g-o-s-s-i-p. My first year of college, Lent was spent spotting the students on campus who I thought had a grease smear on their forehead. It was really the first time I remember seeing ashes on people’s foreheads. That was not a ritual that my home church practiced. When I got to seminary, I learned that many Presbyterians perform the imposition of ashes, placing the mark of the cross on the hand or the forehead. When given the choice, I would decline the ashes because it wasn't something I was used to doing. This year, I got a different taste of Ash Wednesday than I had ever had before.
On Wednesday, beginning as early as 6:00am, the lines in the hospital chapel began for people wanting ashes. Patients, family, staff, and visitors: all awaiting the chaplain’s blessing and ritual. We ran around the hospital putting ashes one patients' foreheads. I put ashes on an 8 year old before surgery; a 94 year old with failing health; English speaking patients and Spanish speaking patients. I was even asked to put ashes on a 2-hour old baby (don’t worry, I just made the mark of the cross with my finger on her forehead: I thought ‘too new, no ashes’). I had never played with so many ashes in my life. I found a deep love for that ritual last Wednesday. By the end of the day, I realized much of my original cynicism around the idea of ashes was wiped clean. I thought of the Stephen Curtis Chapman song that says, “Out of these ashes, beauty will rise.”
Around 8:00 that night, I was called to a patient’s room, learning that he (a man in his early 50s) was going to be removed from life support after a prayer/blessing from the chaplain. I began to speak with the immediate family in the room as the nurse gathered the rest of the family from the waiting room. By the time all the family had come in, there were at least 25 people gathered around the bedside of this patient. For the record, that's a LOT of people in a small hospital room. The patient was completely unresponsive, but I encouraged the family to speak to him directly and share memories…after all, he may have been able to hear us – I have heard (no pun intended) that hearing is the last sense to go. The family then began to grab hands and close their eyes. I offered a prayer for the patient. I then began the Lord’s Prayer and found a resounding unified voice echoing off the walls as the entire family spoke the “Our Fathers” together. It was hauntingly loud, and still so beautiful. I thought again of the song, 'Out of these ashes, beauty will rise.'
Then per the family’s request, I got out the ashes. The ashes that I never played with as a child. The ashes that I once confused with grease smears. The ashes that I always passed on receiving. I got out the ashes to make the mark of the cross on this man’s forehead. The phrase “You are dust and to dust you shall return” didn’t seem fitting at the moment, so I went with my gut which was telling me to provide a prayer of commendation. As I placed the ashes into the shape of the cross, I offered these words: “Go from this life in the name of the Father who created you, in the name of the Son who suffered for you, and in the name of the Spirit who sustains you. Go forth, faithful Christian.”
Family members wept for the loss they knew that was coming, yet were comforted with the promise of the resurrection. The younger family members held onto the older ones who struggled to keep their fragile balance. Husbands and wives held each other tightly. A young girl, probably 3 years old, saw others crying and wiping tears, therefore she innocently grabbed tissues to dab her dry face. I then offered the ashes to any family member who would like them. Surprisingly, about 15 of them came up one by one, and I offered each of them a blessing, by name. They bore the same symbol that their precious loved one bore as he came to the end of his life. I admired their courage that during this end of life experience, they were still able to face their own mortality.
It was a humbling moment for me. It was powerful…so powerful. My whole body had chilly bumps. A life ending way too early. A blended family – blood family, in-laws, step family, friends – grieving as one community. A young child not yet knowing how to face death, but learning how to grieve by holding a tissue to her dry face. Ashes making a mess of the room. A young chaplain serving in a priestly role for this Catholic family.
The Stephen Curtis Chapman song came to mind again. Out of these ashes, beauty will rise. The ashes is the death…the beauty is the resurrection. The ashes is our brokenness…the beauty is God’s wholeness. The ashes is our sin, our hate, our evil…the beauty is forgiveness, second chances, and unconditional love. The ashes is our “I’m sorry’s”…the beauty is our “I forgive you’s.” I learned that day that we need the messiness of the ashes to show us the beauty that will arise from it.
The man died later that night. His death should me a reminder to all of us this Lenten season that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But fear not, my friends. Beauty will rise.