Ash Wednesday in ICU

As a kid, my church had a service on Ash Wednesday—but never with ashes. The music was melancholy, and for me the sermon was always too long.

AshWed-man-glassesMy first ashes were at Holy Cross in Ojai where I serve. I approached them the first time with curiosity. They affected me more than I anticipated. They branded mortality on my face. They made me feel the filth of sin. When I crossed the street to the grocery store, people looked twice at me as they noticed the ashen cross on my forehead.

This cross has become the perfect symbol as I talk with people about Ash Wednesday…and point them toward Easter:
• The ashes are dust, which screams our MORTALITY.
• The ashes are black, which points to our MISTAKES, our sin.
• The ashes form a cross, the ultimate sign of God’s MERCY.

On Ash Wednesday this year, I walked next door to the hospital and visited a woman in intensive care. I talked with her about the ashen cross on my forehead—my mortality, my mistakes and Christ’s mercy.

My friend startled me when she asked, “Can I have ashes?”

“I don’t think they will let me bring ashes into intensive care,” I said. My bowl was next door, back at the church.

“Can I have some of yours?” she asked.

I walked into the bathroom, my eyes welling with tears. I looked in the mirror and wiped some ash from my forehead.

As I leaned over her bed, I smudged her forehead with a black cross and told her, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”


About Ben Unseth

Executive Director at Project Understanding (2014-2017), social service agency in Ventura, CA
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