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. ...
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. ...
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.”
Miles goes on to describe imposing ashes on "the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks," as well as noting "a teenaged drug dealer [who] grinned at us and lifted his cap to show the cross already marked on his forehead."
Read it all.
There's much that's moving about the experiences that Miles recounts. And there's something courageous about this group of Episcopalians who leave the relative safety of church buildings to go out into the streets.
But the story Miles shares is also troubling. Taking the imposition of ashes out of a liturgical context that includes scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, and the litany of penitence, there is no insistence on the reality of sin or any call to repentance. The article describes persons imposing ashes with the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And that's it.
To be sure, this confronts people with their mortality. But it leaves out Ash Wednesday's pointed emphasis on sin and repentance, as well as the liturgy's emphasis on God's desire that sinners "may turn from their wickedness and live" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 269). So the gang members, the teenaged drug dealer, and the others are not invited to name and repent of their sins. There's no explicit call to change. Ironically, without the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the imposition of ashes becomes a kind of implicit affirmation of persons as they are.
Perhaps this accounts for why there is no specific proclamation of the Christian answer to sin and death in this street "liturgy." Where, in what Miles writes, is there any specific proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to the persons receiving the ashes?
Lifting the imposition of ashes from its liturgical context, we're left with the message: "Life is very, very short. So be a more forgiving person." But we don't need Jesus to proclaim that message.
As we move deeper into a post-Christian culture, we need to find creative ways to do Church in new ways. As Sara Miles and her colleagues demonstrate, that may mean literally hitting the streets to meet people where they are. But it also needs to include the fullness of the Gospel message.