The Power of Ash Wednesday in a ‘Thin Place’

chaplain-ogBy 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.
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