By the Rev. Clayton Thomason
Symbols have the power you invest in them, and Ash Wednesday is marked, literally, by a symbol that people of different faiths can invest with different kinds of power and meaning. On Wednesday, as we do every year around this time, Christians worldwide will observe the beginning of Lent — the 40-day period of penitence and self-denial in preparation for Easter — by receiving the sign of the cross marked on their foreheads with ashes, accompanied with the admonition to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
It sounds daunting, I know, yet this ritual is in great demand at Rush, and probably not only among Christian believers. In fact, Ash Wednesday is the busiest day of the year for me and my fellow chaplains at the Medical Center. This Wednesday, we will distribute ashes to somewhere between two and three thousand people at Rush, including our patients, visitors, employees and students.
We will give out ashes to standing room only congregations at three services and provide what we’ve come to call “ashes to go” by visiting inpatient units and outpatient clinics on request. Once, I even provided “drive-by” ashes when a Rush parking employee requested them as I was exiting the parking lot.
We are part of something much greater
As the number of people seeking ashes has grown in recent years, my colleagues and I in the Rush Department of Religion, Health and Human Values have pondered what makes this sacramental, visible sign of penitence so compelling. The other Abrahamic faiths certainly place great importance on the idea of self-denial and atonement, too. It’s the function of Ramadan for Islam and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Judaism.
For Christians, of course, the cross of ashes is not only a sign of penitence but also a symbol of the promise of redemption and eternal life. Yet even for a believer, death is frightening, and while I can’t say for certain, I don’t think that all of the two to three thousand people that we’ll be touching on Wednesday perceive the same meaning in this sacrament.
And that’s just fine. Regardless of one’s faith, Ash Wednesday can be a powerful reminder of our mortality and both the fleeting nature of life and that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. We are part of the whole arc of creation, and according to the Christian faith, we are part of the salvation story of God’s relationship with humanity.
We are not alone
This symbol is especially powerful at a tertiary academic medical center such as Rush — in plainer terms, a teaching hospital where we treat the very sickest of patients. We see people living in the liminal spaces, what Celtic Christians have long called “the thin places” between this world and the next.
I think Rush is one of those thin places between this life and the next, however people understand it. It’s one thing to go to an Ash Wednesday service at your local parish after work. It’s quite another to be lying sick in bed in the hospital and have someone mark ashes on your forehead at your invitation.
I suspect that so many of our patients request this rite because it’s a recognition that they, and each of us, are not alone in our mortality and the fleetingness of life in this liminal, in between place. Similarly, Ash Wednesday has such great appeal to the people who work at Rush because they’re aware of these issues, at least in the back of their minds if not the forefront.
This recognition makes Ash Wednesday an opportunity to reflect on some of the great questions of one’s deeper meaning, purpose and value. No wonder that so many of us find it compelling.
The Rev. Clayton Thomason, JD, MDiv, is the Bishop Anderson Professor of Religion and Ethics in Medicine and chairperson of the Department of Religion, Health and Human Values at Rush University Medical Center.