By Sara Miles
The afternoon looked like rain; the skies were grey, and trembling. "Hey, did you know today is Ash Wednesday?" a white hipster shouted into his phone, as I led a procession of fifteen men and women dressed in black cassocks and carrying smoking thuribles into a plaza by the subway near my home in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Yeah, no shit.”
It was a year ago. Bertie Pearson, a young priest who’d been a DJ in the Mission’s coolest nightspots, had set up a makeshift altar on a black-draped card table in front of the stairs to the subway. Duct-taped to a fence behind it were two handwritten signs: Life is Very, Very, Very Short said one, and another read More Forgiveness. Our impromptu group, assembled from various neighborhood Episcopal churches, looked around a little nervously. There were a couple of priests, and a few seminarians, but most of us weren’t used to stomping through the streets in long black robes. I put more incense on the coals in my thurible. It was copal, the yellowish resin used by the Aztecs to bless the four directions of the world, and it still filled Mexican Catholic churches with the smell of prayers more ancient than Jesus. “Ready?” I asked, and then we walked around the corners of the plaza, censing east and west, north and south with clouds of smoke.
We returned to the altar and fell on our knees. “O God,” began Bertie, chanting in a serious, thin voice only partly drowned out by the buses going by, “you made us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and hope...” He lifted the baby-food jars we’d brought with us. They held the ashes of burned-up palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, when we had gathered to hail Jesus as king on the way to his death. Now bystanders were edging nearer to see what we were doing, and a seminarian with long black hair addressed everyone. “Let us kneel before the God who made us,” she said.
I knelt and pressed my forehead to the dirty sidewalk, the whole rush of my neighborhood, its crazy beauty and apparent hopelessness filling my heart. I’d walked through this plaza the day two teenage kids were shot a block away; I’d seen someone OD in the subway entrance. I’d come here busy and distracted on the way to the library with my five-year old daughter; I’d eaten tacos, chatted with beggars and laughed with friends in this place. “Lord,” I whispered, “have mercy.”
We rose. I marked Bertie, dipping a thumb into the soot. “Remember you’re dust,” I said, pressing the sign of the cross on his forehead. “And to dust you shall return.” “Amen,” said Bertie, and then I bent my head to receive the ashes from him. A curious crowd was forming around us. The priests stayed in front of the altar, waiting for people to come to them, up the escalator.
The rest of us divided into pairs—one with ashes, one with incense—and took off through the plaza. We started touching complete strangers by the dozen, the score, the hundred. We put our hands on people's foreheads, repeating over and over, in English and Spanish, “Recuerdo que eres polvo, y al polvo volverá.” I grabbed Deb, a young woman from my parish who was swinging a thurible, and set off walking up and down Mission Street, into the dollar stores, the taquerias, the parking lots and beauty salons and restaurants, offering ashes to everyone we saw.
We touched the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks. I was pausing to impose ashes on an older lady when some guy pulled up in a truck, put on his blinkers, and threw open the door -- "Oh! can I have those? Wait, my mom is in the back seat, can you go give her some?" Deb led me into the library, and a librarian said "I saw your sign that said forgive more. That's what I need in my life right now. I need to forgive more." At the taqueria, a cook said, "Oh...did you come because you knew we couldn't get to church, so you came to us?" Deb was transfixed. “It’s so intense,” she told me. “Whenever your fingers touch the forehead, it’s like time stops, over and over and over.” Deb stood watching, her mouth open, in the Italian bakery, as a big woman in an apron, holding a three-layer birthday cake in her arms, leaned over the counter toward me. The woman closed her eyes and said, quietly, "Please." I told her she was dust.
We walked through an alley, where a teenaged drug dealer grinned at us and lifted his cap to show the cross already marked on his forehead. “I never thought I’d be walking along the street censing trash cans and storefronts,” Deb said. “and so many people would come toward it.” I know,” I said. “I think people might want a lot more church than we generally give them.”
McDonalds was crowded with teenagers and fry cooks and families buying cheap fast food, and people reached out to us eagerly, pulling us over. A Guatemalan woman unwrapped her tiny baby, who she told me was a week and a half old, and held him up. I crossed his forehead with ashes, and took a deep breath, and told the baby he was going to die. And then his mother, like every single person who leaned forward to receive that day, said the same words: thank you.
Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that your child is going to die? Because it's the truth. People say thank you to that hard blessing because finally, despite all the lies of our culture, it means nothing is hidden, or pretend, or made-up anymore.
The truth is that we all go down to the dust. And that we are loved: to the end, and beyond. We're not alone in life or in death. And when the face of God's truth is revealed in Christ Jesus, with all its terrible suffering and beauty, you can only say what our neighbors said on Ash Wednesday: Thank you.
Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry, and Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.