Ashes on Ash Wednesday
You never know who might be touched by your quiet witness of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Last year, I really wasn’t that busy but I convinced myself I didn’t have time to go to Church in the morning. At work, I passed a surgeon in the hall who had ashes. Knowing his schedule was more hectic than mine, I reluctantly admitted to myself my problem wasn’t my schedule, my problem was laziness. He will never know he inspired my eagerness to be at morning Mass on Ash Wednesday.
The Eucharistic Minister who gave me ashes got me good; my forehead had a big cross and loose flakes of ash landed on my cheeks and nose. Before I cleaned the lower part of my face, I snapped a selfie for social media. The photo sparked conversations about the experiences we have in our secular world and sparked my own memories of past experiences on Ash Wednesday.
When Ashes Invoked Incredulity
One year I worked at a County Hospital in northern California. Based on the demographics of the city, I expected many people to be wearing ashes. I was surprised to see almost none. We had a new Neonatologist visiting our small city from San Francisco. His face and questions showed he was genuinely incredulous to see a coworker joyfully wearing the sign of the cross in ash, a symbol he saw as ugly. He respectfully asked a few questions about the faith but the thing I remember most was that he literally shook his head in disbelief. I was left wondering why his exposure to an outward expression of a faith tradition was something so rare as to leave him incredulous.
Memories of Distributing Ashes
About 14 years ago, when I was studying Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest, I lived near the state line. In Kansas I was a licensed, working Registered Nurse in a Neonatal ICU. When I crossed a certain street into the adjacent state, I was no longer licensed as a Nurse but at this hospital, I functioned as a Student Chaplain. I endeavored to keep my roles separate, but sometimes, my roles blended.
My Nurse colleagues knew I was a Chaplaincy Student and as Ash Wednesday drew near, some of them realized their work days would start before the first Mass of the day and end after the last one. They asked if I would bring ashes to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for them. We went to Mass as a family and after Mass, I spoke to Father and shared with him my hopes of taking ashes to the Hospital. He knew me personally so he trusted me to follow through.
My husband was unaccustomed to his wife functioning in a Pastoral Care role. Both the culture he was raised in and work environment he worked in resisted women functioning in this sort of role. I reminded him that the Priest’s words of dismissal were “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”; taking me to the people wanting ashes was a good way to live that directive. He agreed and drove us all over to my “work” hospital after Mass.
As I exited the car, two of my kids asked if they could go with me. I thought it would be a good learning opportunity, so they tagged along behind me. We walked through the locked doors of the secured area, washed our hands and donned cover gowns. We moved down the aisles between the rows of incubators and radiant warmer beds, making sure the nurses and families knew I had ashes while being careful to not to disturb anyone’s privacy. Since nurses, parents, other staff came up to me, we efficiently made our way through the unit.
When I was heading for the exit, someone called out, “Labor & Delivery called before asking if anyone was bringing ashes by; you should go there.” Maternity Nurses in NICU/Nursery/Mother-Baby/Labor & Delivery sometimes function like isolated islands, interacting only when necessary. Since I was accustomed to coldness from that staff, I was surprised at their reactions when I arrived. They all stopped what they were doing and quietly, respectfully lined up in the hallway. It was not a Catholic hospital, so this was special.
Once I thought I was done until I was approached by a father asking if I would visit his wife who was in labor and bring her ashes. It felt ironic to tell a woman she was but dust when she was in the process of bringing forth new life. Sometimes life feels so vibrant and unquenchable, mortality seems impossible; yet life can be vibrant one minute and gone the next. Our Church, in her wisdom, reserves this one day to remind us of this truth.
The Time to Serve is Now
In the brief time of my life when I was a mom, a wife, a Nurse and a Chaplain, I learned so much; it changed me forever. I now say, “I listen with Chaplain’s ears, I think with a Nurse’s brain and speak with a Mother’s mouth”. God has found ways of using my life’s experiences to help me serve people. He didn’t waste anything when it came to my formation. I have learned ignoring opportunities like Ash Wednesday will cheat me out of deep, spiritual experiences. God uses each of us in the station of life we are in to serve. We don’t have to wait for different circumstances because the time to serve is now.