Last night, our small band of Lydians gathered in Brooklyn’s Atlantic-Barclay’s subway terminal, same busy corridor as last year, with a fiddle, shruti, and drum, we offered ashes to all who want them. Again, strangers came out of the river of traveling people to ask for ashes. And they thanked us for offering a simple ritual about a gift of death. That death is not bad. That death is the future. Again, it was very powerful. And I had forgotten that Ash Wednesday is truly one of my most favorite days of the year. This is my act of service, my gift to strangers. Sharing the moment of intimate vulnerability about our mortality.
The man whose stress melted away on his face, if only for a moment. The young subway worker who asked for ashes and then pulled down his collar to reveal a tracheotomy scar. “I just got out of a coma.” The woman who paused mid-conversation on her cellphone to receive ashes (Quintessential New Yorker Ash Wednesday!). The tiny, Hispanic woman who asked in shattered English if we were Catholic. “No, but I’ll give you ashes if you want,” I said with a light smile. She shrugged and said, “God is God.” The stylish woman who rushed up and gushed with an excited smile, “I didn’t miss it!” The young man who, after I explained the holiday and said, “We remember we are human,” said, “I can go with that,” received ashed and when I marked him and said simply “Remember, from dust you are created and to dust you shall return” pulled back his head in a kind of shocked, profound realization and went away. And over and over they thanked us. “Thank you.” Just as simple as that. And then they meld back into the crowd. These are the stories of a Brooklyn subway station on Ash Wednesday.
This is the secret. People come up. They stand silently or ask quietly for ashes. We smudge their foreheads with a simple reminder. We all share a secret. No explanation necessary. We share this together. No packages. No flowers. No advertising, except a small sandwich board “ASHES for all who want them”, marks on our foreheads, and some simple songs to old instruments. That’s it. “You have great marketing!” said someone to Emily, our pastor. Indeed.
Today the ashes are gone. Everyone’s forehead is washed clean. It is a new day. It is Valentine’s Day. People will give gifts of love. “Remember that I love you.” “Thank you.” And there will be plenty of unrequited love, with a healthy dose of awkward love, as well. We talk about passionate love, of desire. But desire is a kind of suffering. The Latin word passio means suffering. How strange to go from the day when we remember our coming deaths to the day we remember our loves. From black ash to red roses. Maybe it’s not so strange.
I could write about Valentine’s Day and St. Valentine and God’s love for humanity and what have you, but I find such theological maneuvering like the people who shriek, “Keep Christ in Christmas!” and it’s annoying and unproductive. Valentine’s Day is not a day I find important theologically. It’s a consumerist holiday that the greeting card industry has made its own. Valentine’s Day is very American.
It seems a little odd to have Valentine’s Day after Ash Wednesday, but I like it. Maybe it’s not so odd: “We’re all going to die. I love you.” Last night in Atlantic Station, as our little St. Lydian band smudged ash upon strangers faces, I saw many people pass with gift bags and flowers in their hands. I don’t remember seeing people with ashes carrying bouquets of red roses as we stood there, but I’m sure there were plenty. It wasn’t important to me. Valentine’s Day is not a big deal in my house. We don’t need a consumerist day to remind us to show affection. Better to be kind daily to one another. And share a moment of genuine thanks and relief.
Ash Wednesday is over. Today is Valentine’s Day. This year, they stand in stark juxtaposition. Today is the second day of Lent. A day of boxes and flowers and dinners right when a season of reflection and slower living has begun. Black ashes and red roses.
Well, in that case. Take me out tonight… And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.