Ashes to Dust, Dirt to Soil

Excerpt from “This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls” by Anna Woofenden

I walked up to a teenage kid I had noticed before on the streets. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” I offered. 

“Yeah, okay, yeah,” he said. I asked him his name. 

“Daniel,” I spoke as I brushed a stringy curl off his forehead, “from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” As I spoke the words from Genesis 3:19, I traced the sign of the cross on his forehead. 

He locked eyes with mine, showing the vulnerability and hunger of having someone say his name, see him. His eyes filled with tears. I moved my hand from his forehead to his shoulder and offered him a blessing, “May God be with you on your way.” 

“Thank you, thank you,” he mumbled as he walked off. 

For hundreds of years, Christians have been marking the beginning of Lent—the weeks leading up to Easter—with the receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Traditionally placed on heads or clothing, ashes are now most often smudged on foreheads in the sign of the cross. This ancient practice invites us to remember our mortality and it certainly comes with a long-standing power. This simple ritual, taken outside church walls, invited connection within our community in a new and primal way. 

On the first Wednesday morning of Lent, I stood under a shade tent in the Garden Church sanctuary, going over music and the order of worship for our first collaborative Ash Wednesday Service. I was glad to have a colleague with me today: Pastor Lisa from the Methodist church right down the street. Lisa got what it meant to minister to the community; she too considered everyone in the community her congregation. When I had suggested offering ashes on the streets of our neighborhood she’d said, “Yes, of course!” 

Lisa had first noticed the Garden Church on a First Thursday art night soon after being appointed the pastor at the San Pedro United Methodist Church. When we met for tea a few weeks later, she told me that her first thought when she saw it was, “Wow, they had an idea that I should have had—I could do that.” We had quickly become friends, and explored together what it meant to be pastors to all in this part of our town. 

At noon I rang the singing bowl we used in worship, and a few of us at the center of the garden raised our voices together in song as a signal for others to gather. When a group had congregated, we rose. Lisa’s voice rang out across the din of the traffic: 

Have mercy on me, O God.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:1, 10) 

As her voice rose over the cars going past and the helicopter overhead, I looked around at the faces in the circle. Alongside Garden Church regulars were people from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, along with those who had seen a flyer or received an invitation: the grandma with her two-year-old grandson, the owner of the gallery down the street on her lunch break, and the janitor from the Methodist church. I loved the collaboration and the spirit of openness and freedom we felt taking this ancient ritual outdoors, surrounded by soil and grit. 

After we read scriptures, I raised my hands over the ash and proclaimed: “‘From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.’ Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life. Amen.” 

People came forward one by one, brushing the hair away from their foreheads to expose their bare skin to this connection with mortality. Lisa’s red hair framed her face as she smiled and looked into the eyes of one of the neighbors that often slept on her church steps. After prayer and another song, we invited people to come out into the community with us. Most stayed or went back about their work in the garden, or returned to their offices, but a few were ready and joined us in taking the ashes out into the streets. 

I felt a tightness in my chest as we walked towards the gates. It was one thing to proclaim boldly the words and sacrament inside our own sanctuary; it felt a bit frightening to do so on the street. You’d think I’d be used to it by now—having a church outdoors in an empty lot turned urban farm, where people stuck their heads in during worship and wondered aloud what was going on. 

But my insides quaked as I readied myself to make that first step beyond the garden gate. I’d read about this, I’d heard about others doing it, but I’d never actually taken ashes to the streets before. What if people said no? What if it was embarrassing? What was I leading my congregation into? I calmed myself with the knowledge that in this heavily Catholic neighborhood, at least some people would know what these ash smudges were for. 

I didn’t get a step beyond our front gate when someone came asking for ashes. It was Gabe, from the barbershop next door. “Do you have ashes even though I missed the service? Can I have some?” 

“Of course!” I answered and reached out my hand. 

“Thank you so much, I was worried I wouldn’t get off work to get to church on time.” We started walking up the street and popped our heads into shops along the way. We offered ashes to the people on the sidewalk as we passed. My fears were quickly allayed. The people we encountered received the ashes gratefully. 

Halfway up the block we met a couple of men in their twenties in torn jeans and unbuttoned shirts. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” I asked. 

“Uh, no thanks,” one said. We all kept walking. 

But the other man turned around and gave me a longing look. I raised my thumb in silent offering. He turned back towards me, lifted his shaggy bangs, and looked down shyly at the sidewalk. 

“From dust you have come and to dust you will return,” I said quietly as I pressed my ash covered thumb into his forehead in the shape of a cross. 

 “Thanks a lot,” he mumbled as he turned to join his friend. 

Next we saw three older men in their lawn chairs, on the corner near the cross-walk. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” 

“Nope, we’ve already been to mass,” was the answer. This was the most connection I’d ever gotten from them. 

“Blessings to you!” we chorused as we walked on. 

“Let’s go to the shops in the walkway.” Connie knew every business on the block. “I know Mary will want some,” she added. We started with the jewelry shop. Indeed, the owner was glad to see Connie. 

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it to Mass today,” she said. “This is so perfect.” 

Next the hairdresser and her customer halfway through her appointment, jumped up and said, “Oh really? We were just talking about Ash Wednesday, thank you so much!” Her eyes filled with tears as I held up the foils on her bangs and crossed her forehead with ash. 

Then her neighbors came over. “I was worried I wasn’t going to get off work in time to get ashes,” one of them said. “Thank you for bringing them to me.” 

As we made our way through the streets, I felt my love for this quirky town grow with each encounter. Even the people who did not want ashes appreciated the gesture. The kid at the bus stop: “I don’t want the ashes to make my skin break out, but can you give me a blessing anyway?” 

Each time I pressed the slightly oily ash onto someone’s forehead, I felt—even if just for that moment—a dissolving of the things that separated us from each other. I generally considered myself relatively open to the people I met, but this practice stretched me to places I didn’t usually tread. It was the people washing dishes in the back of the hole-in-the-wall taco joint who wanted the ashes, not the people sitting at the tables where I usually sat. The guys having a smoke out behind the mechanic’s garage wanted them too. Honoring each person—whoever they were and whatever they were doing—opened up a world of connection. 

I found out later that Connie, a beloved teacher of English as a second language, had continued to share the ashes that evening. As she was teaching, a student asked her about the ash cross on her forehead. “It’s for Ash Wednesday,” she replied and when half her class gave her confused looks, she shared about this holiday while teaching vocabulary words. 

A couple of students approached her after class. “We know Ash Wednesday, but we weren’t able to get to Mass today because we had to work and then go straight to class.” Connie’s face fell, wishing she’d brought a container of ashes with her. 

“Wait, I have an idea!” she said as she reached up to her own forehead, removing some of the ash to make the sign of the cross on her students’ foreheads. “Del polvo viniste … y al polvo regresarás,” she said softly in Spanish. “From dust you have come and to dust you will return again.” 

Writer and monk Thomas Merton tells a well-known story about the moment he stood on a street corner and felt unbelievable love for humanity. He writes, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world.”

With each person whose face I looked into and touched, I felt a Merton moment—overwhelmed by a love for each person that went beyond what I could produce on my own, overwhelmed by knowing that we were all in it together. The ash on my hand and their forehead burned through my illusion that we are anything other than all in this together, mortal and human, created and beloved, dust, dirt, heart, and spirit.

We walked next to a diner where a woman joyfully bounded around the counter, “Yes, please! I want ashes! Thank you for bringing them to me!” 

She turned and called to her co-workers, “Ashes!” and an old man, a young boy, the dishwasher, and the cook streamed out from the kitchen. 

As we walked out, we saw an old woman in the parking lot with her life belongings loaded on a shopping cart looking up and asking for this blessing on her rugged forehead. 

It is amazing to me that the desire to connect, to be seen, to be blessed, is so strong that having black ash smudged on your forehead seems like a good idea. Why would a reminder of the inevitability of death be welcomed and embraced? Perhaps it is because the ritual of the ashes brings so many dichotomies together: life and death, despair and hope, human and divine, all woven together in this sacred tactile act. Ash Wednesday is the connecting thread that takes us from the hopeful waiting of Advent to the new birth of Christmas, walks us through Epiphany and into the depths of Lent, then goes with us all the way to the death on the cross, and finally, to the new life of resurrection.

Excerpted from This is God’s Table: Finding God Beyond the Walls by Anna Woofenden. © 2020 by Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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