Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday in Hospice

Though I’m not preaching this Ash Wednesday, I am thinking of the service, imposition of ashes, and the meaning behind it all. It is the day that we mortals take a moment to face that fact that we’re all going to die. Every last one of us. Our culture doesn’t like thinking or talking about death. It makes us uncomfortable, panicked, sad.

But there are some places you can’t escape thoughts of death, and the Ash Wednesday message can bring a strange comfort. In 2008, I was working as a Hospice Chaplain in Indianapolis. Our Ash Wednesday was attended primarily by staff.

The patients are confined to their death beds.

After service with the staff, I would offer ashes to any patient or family member who wished to remember their mortality. It was both strange and powerful to enter patient rooms and offer them an ashen cross.

“You are dust” offers a haunting reality when placing the remnants of burnt palm branches on a dying man’s forehead. “…To dust you shall return” are chilling words when spoken to a woman who doesn’t see tomorrow.

Looking into their eyes, the dying offered me a mirror back at my spirit. Some Ash Wednesday I too will be laying on my deathbed, my labored breath counting down the remaining seconds I have on this earth.

But I’m not afraid. I know the cross will still be there, because the cross is always there. On the forehead of my child who comes forward during our worship service. On the man or woman I may burry next week, or next month, or next year. On my own face, as I speak the haunting words to the living and dying.

But are we not all dying?

Are we not always moving one breath closer to leaving this earth? The ashen cross is there to remind us of this.

But, are we not all living?

Are we not redeemed, forgiven and promised eternal life through Christ, who defeated death? The ashen cross is there to remind us of this.

In hospice, you are blessed to sit in the ashes with others. We cannot have resurrection without the cross. We cannot have hope in the future without acknowledging the pain of the present. We cannot have life without death.

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