Ash Wednesday in the hospital is a humbling experience. Touching the face of a dying person and telling them they are dust. Smudging ash on the hand of someone waiting to see if their loved one will ever wake up again. Reminding nurses and doctors and custodians that their presence is sacred. Watching the ash cover my hands and bury under my fingernails with every encounter. Remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Ash Wednesday in our world is a humbling balance. On the one hand, God made Adam out of the dust and breathed into him the breath of life to be a steward of creation. As Rachel Held Evans beautifully wrote, this season celebrates reality and tells us we are not alone. On the other hand, our world reminds us of our mortality and brokenness. 685 million Covid deaths around the world, 71 mass shootings in the US in 2023, at least 853 deaths of migrants at US borders in 2022, a record 6542 guns confiscated in US airport security, 22 states targeting gender-affirming healthcare – the list goes on. Even social media feeds, phone calls with friends, conversations with check out clerks, passing moments with strangers affirm things are not as they ought to be. Remember that we are dust (stunning creation) and to dust we shall return (scary reality).
Ash Wednesday in every time and place is a humbling opportunity. In this time where I am surrounded by death, grief, and pain every day as I show up to the hospital, I’ve been leaning heavily on Mr. Rogers’s famous advice to look for the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Notice how he doesn’t say hide your emotions or pretend like nothing’s wrong. When we see scary things (and we will see scary things), look for the helpers. It can be trite and sometimes outright frustrating, but I also believe it’s true. Yes, we are dust and to dust we will return. And in the meantime, between that beginning and that end, we have an ability to help. Hold the door. Say hello. See if they need help with those groceries. Play peek-a-boo with the kid on the other side of the fish tank in the waiting room. Check in on the folks who are always checking in on others. By this, I believe and I hope that we can hold together the lightness of God’s delightful creation of and intention for humanity and the heaviness of the reality of death, too – this day and all days. In our helping, in our wandering, in our wrestling, remember friends: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Perhaps that is enough.