A Chaplain Reflects on Ash Wednesday

Palm and Cross PhotoLike many aspects of a school chaplain’s day, the students and teachers see us at our best and at our worst. With all our limitations and quirks, and hopefully in our steady presence and caring way, they see us in all of our humanity. It shouldn’t be any other way if we hope to be worthy of being invited into the more vulnerable moments of their adolescence and adulthood. Which is why the imposition of ashes begins with the two of us as chaplains uttering those words to each other – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return while making an ashen cross on each other’s foreheads. We do this in a silent sanctuary as the community looks on. This day is about our common life together. Human beings marked as God’s own. That is why this day, Ash Wednesday, should be no different. And yet, each year for me, Ash Wednesday brings to the surface a whole range of emotions that can be experienced in a given year of ministry with adolescent boys. Ash Wednesday reveals the variety of roles that encompass what one may experience in school chaplaincy.

Every year I am moved, as I stand there dressed in black as students approach me to receive the imposition of ashes. My wardrobe is different than every other day of the school year, but I am still the same individual underneath. The same man who stands on the sideline to watch their soccer match, the same father who brings his family to the winter musical, the same teacher who instructs their ninth grade bible class, the same voice that shares with them at the beginning of a weekly chapel service that one of the teachers has given birth to a child or that a school family has lost a loved one. And yet today, in addition, I take on a more “formal” role to the young people that decide to come forward to receive ashes. The same students who I teach, share meals with during lunch, volunteer beside at a local dinner program, and offer care to because someone they love has died. Here they are coming forward to receive ashes in the sign of a cross. Of all the things that are “sacramental” in my ministry – this on many levels feels the most tangible. Certainly because it is a rite of the Church but more poignantly because of the impact that moment has on me as a priest. It is a powerful reminder of how we are invited into peoples’ lives in the most significant and vulnerable of moments. And perhaps this is most powerful when it is a young person who trusts enough in me and the Church to do so.

As they come forward, it is often necessary to brush hair out of their eyes or lift a tuft from their forehead before applying the ashes. And as they look you in the eyes there is an irony to the words uttered – to these young people full of life. After all they are just beginning to explore and to reflect upon who they are and hope to become. Full of the opportunity to make mistakes; and yet genuine and sincere in their place of trying to navigate all that life as a teenager in 2014 throws at them socially, emotionally, electronically, and academically. Are these young people sinful or just human? Do these young people really need to be reminded of the ways they have fallen short? Is putting ashes on their forehead the wrong liturgical exercise to hold onto?

And yet, if we are in the vocation of walking with them, and trying to offer experiences for them to draw upon in later years, than introducing them to this idea of our mortality might be a somber but important marker in our journey with them. It might be what helps all of us in moments of sorrow and joy to be reminded that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. Ultimately a community is strengthened by the experiences that inform it – in the repeated liturgies and traditions of a faith community, in addition to the unique and unpredictable events that shape any given school year.

Now another boy comes forward. This time it seems he has been watching those who have gone before him. He lifts his hair so that his forehead is exposed. It is dotted with pimples; his skin is slightly slick from the onset of adolescence and all that comes with it. And yet here he is exposing himself – allowing me to see a piece of him that would also make him vulnerable in his circle of peers. I have been invited to offer the imposition of ashes to his head.  It is humbling and it is affirming to do so.

I look to the side and notice that boys who have returned to the pews are watching me. They seem to be looking at the cross taking shape on the skin of their friend. I suspect they are listening to the words which they heard but didn’t necessary internalize when they were marked as God’s own. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Now I find myself considering the depth of those words as I say them again and again; particularly to these young people who are inherently just, true, and good. I see that in them every day. And then for a moment I wonder if I should be offering these ashes with a smile as they look at me? Not to make light of the ritual, but to try and reassure them that they are not bad. Simply, that they are human.

And then I can’t help but smile as they continue to receive ashes. One boy looks up to try and get a better sense of what I am doing. Another boy is the recipient of ashes that are really dry and so specks inevitably fall onto his face as the sign of the cross is made. He wrinkles his face in reaction to the tickling feeling. And then the next student comes forward, and after receiving ashes, looks straight at me and says quietly, “Thanks Rev.” Some might react by concluding that he doesn’t seem to get what this is about in the life of the Church. For if he did, wouldn’t he be more reverent? And yet he has chosen to come forward and participate. He is allowing me to put ashes on his forehead. He has invited me in.

The Rev Brooks Hundley is Upper School Chaplain at St. Albans School in Washington D.C.