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Reflections on Ash Wednesday

I received the little urn of ashes from the pastor in the prayer chapel not long after the sun had risen in the east. Like an ancient healer, she had mixed in anointing oil, to give the grey leavings "body," she said. I studied the beautiful earthenware container she had carefully chosen for this sending forth to the frail. It was different from other ash-holding urns, as there was an open hole in the top -- an escape perhaps, or maybe just a way back to life.

I started at the farthest nursing home from the church, so I could work my way back to center and then to the farthest in the other direction before day was done. My first stop was a skilled facility where dementia and incontinence reign. The member I visited sat silently, soaking in the simple service until the point where she received the cross of ashes on her forehead. Then words returned, and she brokenly repeated the words of John 3:16 in unison with me, leaning into the blessing, her eyes fluttering closed as if Christ himself was upon her.

My car seemed to drive itself to the next place, catching me by surprise. I had been unable to reach this lady’s daughter to help pave the way, and my last experience here was short and not particularly sweet. I didn’t intend to come here – being verbally shown the door isn’t the most pleasant of experiences. Yet I was received with grace and great thankfulness, the blessing bringing the receiver to tears. Thank you, Jesus, for once again showing me the way.

I reached the next facility, hoping to meet a recently admitted mother of a member. The one I sought was right inside the entrance, as if she was waiting for me. She was overcome when receiving the imposition -- as was the mother at the next facility, who was waiting in a chair placed right inside the entrance door so she wouldn’t miss me when I came. What beauty there is in being Christ’s light in the world of those who are often invisible.

My next stop was the County Home, recently privatized and quite clean and welcoming. I had received permission from caregivers of two residents with end-stage dementia to impose ashes. I marveled at the power of this seemingly simple act of the sign of the cross on the forehead of the comatose. The man opened one eye. I wondered what he saw in his monovision, and what he felt in his spirit. The lady had no physical acknowledgement of my presence, yet I sensed she knew something somehow was different in her day. A third member, 97 years old and sharp as a tack, was just finishing her group Bible study. The whole class enthusiastically received the blessing of ashes, one of whom was reduced to hiccupping sobs as she realized it was possible to reclaim a faith she had left behind seventy or so years ago.

And on went the day, each blessing accumulating in sacredness. I was awed by the homebound who had made their homes special to receive the visitor, and by care home residents who welcomed me with grateful sincerity. I felt as if I had returned to another era, one where the visit was an end unto itself. It was a time of sharing space and words, looking directly at each other and telling stories of the special things that make us unique. In these visits, I accidentally knelt in wet spots on the carpeting, held hands that did not hold mine and inadvertently blessed hundreds in passing while searching for our church family. Each eye contact reaffirmed that I am exactly where I am meant to be, in the gap between the walls of the church and the faithful frail outside.

By suppertime, I was at our United Methodist facility, feeding a member’s mother from her three piles of food – the green pile, the brown pile, and the white pile. I had not spoken with this lady’s daughter, and so did not impose ashes on the possibly unwilling. Instead I told the pony-tailed diner what I remembered from our prior four years of visits. To the surprise of the staff, the object of my attention began to laugh and interject words into our "conversation". I laid my left hand on her shoulder as I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, my right hand resting lightly on the table. I felt the fork tines pressing into my skin, pulling, drawing my hand to the right. I opened my prayerful eyes and glanced at the one attempting to extend her reach with the utensil. I said, "Anne, would you like me to pray with you too?" Her blue eyes sparkled in reply, and her smile lit her face with joy.

I arrived at the final facility of the day with three people to visit. How interesting that they covered all the "levels of care". It was as if this was a journey in itself. The member’s mother in the apartment was gracious and animated, so thankful for the visit and the conversation despite the dark hour. The mother in the middle needed more care, her leg blackening with the lack of circulation and other organ failings visible in her countenance. "Don’t wait too long before coming back", she whispered. I heed her words.

The final lady snored in darkness, having been tucked into bed in the special dementia unit. My ashless thumb made the sign of the cross on her forehead, blessing the journey she was soon to take. My little girl bedtime prayer glanced my memory, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." There was no waking here, so I prayed her soul would find peace beyond.

What a beautiful day, this beginning of Lent. The next morning I listened to a message on my answering machine from one of the visited, thanking me, saying it was one of the most meaningful moments of her life, and that she loves me. Twenty minutes. That’s all our visit was, but it mattered. It mattered a lot, because Christ’s light had pierced the darkness of loneliness, fear and isolation that day. All were reminded that even if they forget God, He never forgets them. He loves each of us so much that He gave his only Son, so that all who believe will not perish, but have everlasting life. What a beautiful day, indeed.

Karla A. Woodward (RN, BSN. MS Social Gerontolog) is the Program Director for Silver Link Ministries of Congregational Care at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, Leawood.

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