Last night, I spent two hours standing in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue-Pacific Street subway station reminding complete strangers of their mortality. Each Ash Wednesday, a small band of St. Lydia’s community offers ashes to the people passing by. Last year, it was in Union Square (when I first saw them, but did not know who they were). There were about eight of us in all with our little sandwich chalkboard in front of us unassumingly offering, “ASHES if you would like them.” Most people ignored us, some stared at us, confused, some gave us knowing looks. But the amazing thing to me is that people, unsolicited, came up to us and asked for a cross of ash to be marked on their foreheads. In fact, most people came up and just stood there expectantly. Waiting.
I was a little nervous. It surprised me at first, how people would just walk out of the crowd up to me. Suddenly, they were just there. This is New York City. There is an implicit and silent protocol of interaction. You don’t engage with others like this – especially in the subway. In fact, the subway is notorious for people treating each other in an inhuman way. People simply ignore each other. We all do it to get to where we need to go. It’s an essential part of our urban armor. But yesterday, people broke that protocol. We offered people to allow themselves to be reminded of something bigger and they took it.
Most would just stand in silence (the first person who came to me, in fact, was deaf). Some would say “I want ashes.” I would ask their name and I was amazed this stranger would tell me their name. And then would simply say their name, rub on their forehead the small plus of a cross with my sooted thumb and tell them “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.” I would look at them in their eyes when I told them this. Some closed their eyes, some lowered them, but many would look back at me. And we would be human together, if only for a moment. We would share a silent understanding what this moment and act was all about. And the person would thank me or simply say “Amen” or just walk way. And go on their way back into their lives, among the flow of people, within the energy and rhythm of the station. I remember so many faces. I remember a few names.
To say the night was humbling is an understatement. There were usually four of us offering ashes while the others sang simple folk hymns (there was a Gaelic one I liked) and early Church chants accompanied by a simple squeezebox that played a single tone. There was nothing about us that explicitly said “Christian”. A passing Evangelical asked me if we were “Catholic.” I said no. Then he asked, “Are you Buddhist?” No. And he went away, confused. And we just continued to silently offer our ashes and sang. We were whatever people needed. And we provided an ancient ritual for them, a silent understanding between us in who we are as humans in the community of the Church. Ash Wednesday is an open secret. A sign on our foreheads about our identity as marked people – marked for life and death and the existential questions in between.
In those faces we marked, I saw anxiety and relief. I saw joy and sorrow. I saw peace. I saw reflection. I saw memory. I saw grateful smiles. All races. All cultures. I saw a man with so much stress etched across him relax and never alter a muscle. A few people said they had forgotten it was the holiday and relieved (and some excited!) that they got ashes. Mothers came up to me and had me smear soot on their children’s faces and tell each of these little ones that they were going to die. And their mothers smiled as I did this and thanked me and they disappeared back into the crowd, baffled children in tow. It was of the oddest and most profound moments I’ve ever experienced. Some people smiled and said, “I didn’t get to church, but this is close enough.” Close enough.
This is the bleak theology. This is why Ash Wednesday is my high holy day. This is strangers going to one another to find solace and comfort in one another about something they share: death and life – and life means so much more when you remember your death. And we smile to one another and look into each other’s eyes and nod knowingly. There was no preaching. There was nothing explicitly Christian about what we did other than the songs we sang and the mark of the cross we offered. Anyone could receive ashes for whatever silent purpose they needed. People would see people receiving ashes and get behind them for their own. There was a gentle understanding among us. Some of that understanding was that we are all mortal and that we are all in this together.
And with the brutal acknowledgement of death is the hope of many things: peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, eternal life, salvation, resurrection, something other than right now, in a Brooklyn subway station. All of these things – and more – in a Brooklyn subway station on a cold Wednesday night. And where was God in all of this? Well, that’s a good question. I never said anything about God, or Christ, or the Church. I just asked people’s names and reminded them that they were from dust and would return to dust.
And the theological impact, power, and meaning of that reminder was more than I could possibly say. In saying very little, we say so much more. There is Presence in Absence. The simple ritual of Ash Wednesday is the Gospel in action for the Church, to remind itself – and individuals – of our origins and future. The sign of a smeared and oily cross on a weary stranger’s face is more than ever could be said in any sermon. Our message is bleak, but it is hopeful. It is the hope against all hope.
Lent has begun. Our wilderness of forty days has begun. I am thankful for what happened last night. I had an amazing, profound experience in a Brooklyn subway, being part of a small band of people who simply offered ashes and, in doing so, so much more. I’m already looking forward to next year. From dust we were created and to dust we shall return. Amen. And amen.