Ash Wednesday at the Hospital
Ash Wednesday is typically a day of stillness and contemplation. But for the Spiritual Care department, it’s our busiest day in the hospital. Catholics, ecumenical Protestants, and others just longing for a little extra blessing come eagerly in search of what, on any other day, would be an unsightly black smudge on their forehead.
“Are you giving out ashes?” doctors and housekeepers alike ask. We nod, stick our thumb in little cups of ashes, move our finger horizontally and vertically across the middle of their forehead, and say, “this first day of lent, we remember, from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” Standing in the middle of a hospital, where some will be returning to dust sooner than we desire, proclaiming or mortality is particularly stark.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day season leading up to Good Friday and Easter. We receive the ashes as a sign of our mortality as we move into the Lenten season of repentance and fasting. But at the hospital, this outward sign of faith also marked the unity of our Christian commitment.
I walked into the surgery department during the early afternoon to offer ashes to the admitting and waiting room staff. One of the staff, an enthusiastic Catholic, quickly became my herald, parading me around the surgery department, singing out, “Ashes, ashes for Ash Wednesday,” in Spanish and in English. A tightly-controlled world of serious medical procedures, chaplains rarely get the chance to wander around surgery. But with my little cup of ashes in hand, my herald guided me around the department, into waiting rooms and break rooms, consultation rooms and offices, and in and out of pre-op and post-op. I half expected to be asked to scrub up to administer ashes to a surgeon involved in a long procedure. I gave ashes to nervous family members waiting to hear the results of the surgery, kids still drowsy from anesthesia in post-op, and surgeons in their scrubs, gowns, and face masks, foreheads barely showing under their surgical caps.
In surgery, I found my brothers and sisters everywhere. Tears almost came to my eyes as I told each one, “God bless you, sister,” and “God bless you, brother.” But I hoped they would see each other, too. I hoped the eye of the doctor and housekeeper would meet, as they glanced at that unsightly black smudge on the others forehead, and find a connection that crossed the stratified world of the hospital. I hoped they would see each other as brother and sister, too.
So a season of repentance and penitence, yes. But hopefully a season of unity across all bounds, too, journeying towards Easter together.