I had been looking forward to Ash Wednesday and getting to participate in the imposition of ashes for the first time. I first assisted with the chapel service which felt fairly familiar and then went to offer ashes to patients, families, and staff on the floors I work on. This is where the experience was a little different. If you ever want to feel painfully redundant, try reminding people who work at a children’s hospital that life is fragile – then trying wearing a cross of ashes on your forehead while standing in a trauma room. It was as if my very presence screamed out the truth that we so often try to not think about – life is fragile – from dust you came and to dust you shall return.
I feel as if my life as a chaplain outside of the hospital frequently serves that purpose. I am the individual in social gatherings whose job you don’t want to inquire after because I might say something sad or something that reminds you that life is fragile and that that fragility could affect you and your loved ones. Instead people just stick with, “you must love your job, just love it, it must be so rewarding” plus a few “I could never do that’s” thrown in for good measure. It is as if my job inside the hospital is to bring comfort and yet outside the hospital I tend to make people uncomfortable and not in a way that’s generally appreciated.
This was the way I was thinking about the imposition of ashes when I went to one of my floors. A family I have been following for five months asked me to come and put ashes on their foreheads. I started with the siblings of the patient first, and I truly wish I had thought of something wiser or more creative to say, but I didn’t so instead, by the time I got to the patient, I looked her in the eyes, made the sign of the cross on her forehead and said “remember, from dust you came and to dust you shall return… and you are beloved of God.” I somehow managed not to cry, but when I made it back down to my desk I texted my mom, “I am in the deep end of Ash Wednesday!?!” It is one thing to remind people of their mortality in church, where many feel safely removed, it is quite another to look into the eye of a child who has already had two bone marrow transplants.
My mom texted me back and said, “remember what the rabbis said, you are to hold in one hand that from dust you came and to dust you shall return and in the other, that even for you, the world was created.” I think many times in Lent, or just in life, we forget that balance both for ourselves and for others. It is often too easy to focus on one and neglect the other. As I looked at that little girl’s face I thought about how fragile we are and how “dusty” life is, but I also thought about how majestic life is as well. How there is holiness in little moments, and how even people we barely know are precious parts of God’s creation.
This lent, I pray we hold onto both ideas, that we honor the fragility of life and do not take it for granted, that every healthy baby born, every yearly well visit is a reason for celebration as if the world could have turned on it, and at the same time, that we take in the majesty of creation, and that we are both a small and magnificently large part of it. That we allow ourselves to be both uncomfortable and to honor the fragility and also to be in awe – which can be uncomfortable too – both require courage. As my favorite quote from the book Gilead puts it, “I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
Here’s to a dusty, uncomfortable, majestic, awe-filled Lenten season…