By G. Travis Woodfield, MDiv., M.A, BCC, edited by Elizabeth Griffith, M.S. | April 15, 2019
“Let us…enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions, and all the fantasies of our imagination.” St. Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind into God
When I began my hospital chaplaincy residency, my future wife and I made a decision: I would not bring anything from work home with me. I didn’t want to traumatize her with the work I chose to do, and I had a support system of colleagues and peers in the ministry that I could talk to. I would be working at a hospital that was known for its busy Emergency Department and had a very active chaplaincy department. This made nights in the hospital, where the chaplain on call had the entire hospital to cover, busy, stressful, and often endless. Through the night, through the hard corridors, into and out of rooms, up and down the elevators, and under the omnipresent fluorescent lighting, I would work and minister. So, I wondered, what would Ash Wednesday and Holy Week be like if imagined as a night shift at the hospital?
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday by reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Medical professionals of all kinds experience this reality so frequently that it is nearly impossible to explain to people who do not live it day in and day out. Death and our return to the earth is but one way we experience dust. Then there is the dust of expectations, dreams, changes of all kinds, mobility, and desires; all of which will dissipate in the blowing winds of time. Patients come to the hospital, with the ashes of their past covering their wounds and needs. Ash Wednesday reminds us to be gentle with people, and to serve them more wholly.
Palm Sunday is the evening’s initial report and marks the begging of our shift—a time full of expectation and hope. How many of us have heard some version of “Thank God you’re here,” when we checked in to take over for a colleague? Palm Sunday is a reminder not to believe all of our own hype. It took all of Lent to arrive at our own “initial report” moments, but how much time and preparation did it really take us? We were willing to put in the time and work for our education, but what have we done over the last 40 days to walk this road to the cross?
The Last Supper
As we continue our shift, things start off well. Then, unexpectedly, Thursday comes. Christian tradition has interpreted the Last Supper as being about betrayal. Let me offer another interpretation for you today: this moment is about service. When we have power, authority, and ability, and we choose to wash the feet of others—to serve them in all we do—that’s when life gets messy. It makes sense, though, doesn’t it? The leaders of the time expected Jesus to act in certain ways. They expected him to be a king, the kind of person who makes decisions, destroys the systems, and liberates the oppressed, violently, if needed. As medical professionals we are burdened with the similar weight of expectations. Patients and families expect us (chaplains, nurses, and doctors) to have all the answers, to be able to work miracles, and liberate loved ones from illness.
That’s when Good Friday arrives. In the midst of those expectations, there comes a time when all we can do is witness to service, and to respect and reflect on the dignity of the individual. Those moments when you feel powerless and unable to respond in any meaningful way—that’s Good Friday. When you realize that even in those moments it’s not about you, that it’s about something bigger than you, and bigger than you could even explain—that’s Good Friday. When the only response to a family, a situation, or an experience is silence—that’s Good Friday.
As the night drags on, the only lights to illuminate the way are the fluorescents above our heads. As we walk from room to room, the dark silence of Holy Saturday reminds us of the power of waiting. We wait, not because it is an “in between” time, but because reflection and rest in the midst of our lives is important. Waiting is not about wanting the next thing to happen, it’s a time to find hope and then to reflect on it. Holy Saturday is when we catch up from our liturgical “whiplash” and the whiplash of our lives.
The Coming Dawn
Finally, the sun shine begins to pour in, reinforcing the fluorescents and banishing the darkness. Report is given, and the night shifters leave the hospital, crossing paths with families arriving to visit their loved ones. I walk outside and as the morning sun hits my face, and I can’t help but think, “If only you knew what the night was like.” Easter morning comes for patients, their families, and the world we serve, because of the Holy Week the medical professionals live on a daily basis. As we come toward the end of this metaphorical night shift and this literal journey of Lent we move into Triduum and finally, the sunrise of Easter Sunday.
After I became a chaplain, the journey of Lent began to make new sense to me. I was struck by the sense that, during Lent, we have lost control. We lose control of our perceptions of who God is, who we want God to be, and how God works in the world. Yet somehow, every Maundy Thursday, God reminds us of our call to serve and the pain that comes with it. Every Good Friday, God reminds us that we are not God. Every Holy Saturday we are reminded of the importance of silence and waiting. Every Easter Sunday, somehow, the sunrise still feels new. The light and warmth of the rays embrace us in a world filled with darkness.
My hope this Holy Week, is that you will walk into that night shift with me. Remember the times that you have lived Holy Week in your personal or professional lives. Find your support systems and those things that help you find the meaning of your experiences. Engage them. Know that this week may be hard. Know that you will have hard nights, too. Remember, the people you pass, whether at home or as you leave the hospital, will not have been through Holy Week with you, so be patient with them. Know that you're not alone, and the sunrise will come.