Ash Wednesday: Repentance on the Street

by Sara Miles

Since 2010, I’ve been part of a growing movement around the country that observes Ash Wednesday by carrying ashes to the streets and offering them to neighbors on the sidewalks, at bus stops, in fast-food restaurants, taquerias, beauty salons and parks. My new book, City of God, tells the story of one such Ash Wednesday in San Francisco’s Mission District, where I’ve lived for the last twenty years.

I’m planning to be out in the streets again this Ash Wednesday: there’s something compelling, albeit nerve-wracking, about the practice. “I don’t even know what this is,” a woman who offered ashes alongside me last year said, amazed, “but I could do this forever.” Perhaps it’s the intimacy of touching strangers by the hundreds and gazing into their faces: an old Guatemalan lady eating French fries, two eight year-old boys on tricycles, an African-American girl with braids, a big white guy in a windbreaker with a scar on his cheek; hipsters; well-dressed commuters; a Mexican grandfather bent over his cane; a gaggle of girls in tight jeans; a weepy woman, a drunk man, a teenager wearing gang colors….in one afternoon you get to glimpse, close-up, something of the incredible variety of the whole people of God.

Or perhaps it’s the power of the words, repeated over and over: Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. There’s something shocking and powerful about speaking the truth aloud in public this way, and about the deep hunger all kinds of people have to hear it. Will Hocker, a priest and chaplain, told me that he sometimes gets asked for ashes by those who aren’t conversant in Christian ritual. “I think they sort of realize it’s an invitation to acknowledge limits. To bow down in public and say, ‘I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.’ Will says people may not be interested in church, but they are “really, really interested in doing that.”

Doing liturgy outside of church buildings is an opportunity to look at faith in a new way, stripped of familiar scaffolding and props. Rosa Lee Harden, a priest who participated in our first offering of ashes in the Mission, said, “As a clergyperson, you tend to know what’s going to happen inside your church…sometimes it gets hard to see the life in the ritual. In the street, the Holy Spirit is working overtime. There’s just no way to be jaded; it’s all new.”

But I think it’s a mistake to focus on offering ashes in the streets as a way for parishes to be innovative, or for self-conscious Christians like me to feel daring, or as a cool new liturgical trick that’s going to save or fix or change the Church, making it more “modern” or “relevant.” What I’ve found through the practice is just another way to repentance.

In both secular and religious worlds, whenever “feelings” are elevated to a kind of quasi-spiritual importance, repentance seems klunky and old-fashioned. But repentance isn’t an emotional or a psychological state of mind, and it’s not about feeling sorry––certainly not about just saying you’re sorry. It means, as my rector Paul Fromberg says, “putting on your big-girl panties,” and turning toward God, actually changing. Not pouring ashes on your head in a fit of self-loathing, but allowing Jesus to gently spit into a handkerchief and scrub off your face, so that you can face your own desire, and God’s desire, for conversion, new life.

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,” God demands, in the verses from Isaiah we read on Ash Wednesday, “one day for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

I hate this. Like everyone else, I want to change—but I also badly want to stay the same. I’d like to repent, but mostly I don’t. Getting past sin’s screeching feedback loop requires paying attention to God and other people, and often I don’t want to make the effort. Say I’ve been mean, or lazy, or selfish: unless I’m forced into actual relationships I just become meaner, less able to get up, less interested in thinking about anyone else. Say I’ve been drifting into nostalgia, comfort, insularity–––the same sins I self-righteously assign to the Church––my whole world becomes so very small that there’s no point in trying anything different.

And so stepping out into the streets of the city on Ash Wednesday, as one more human made of dust, is a way to get shaken free, slapped upside the head by grace. Jammed body to body against the neighbors who irritate me, the friends I’m too busy for, the strangers I’ve failed to notice; speaking the truth aloud about our common mortality in a violent, class-stratified city; glimpsing the inextinguishable desire for connection amid the din of commerce–– all this allows me to see again what treasures sin has kept me from, what’s truly precious in God’s eyes.

On the dirty sidewalks, in the dollar stores and taquerias and schoolyards of my neighborhood, it’s just a little bit harder for me to turn away from other real human beings, my own flesh and blood. It’s just a little easier for me to turn to them with compassion instead of indifference. When I experience how deep and broad and hilarious and holy this city truly is, and yearn to toss my sinful life into the mix, repentance becomes possible. And so on Ash Wednesday in the street I learn to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: this whole screwed-up world, and the people God made to be his own.

Sara Miles is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and the author of City of God: Faith in the Streets

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