When I got to the church to prepare for Ash Wednesday, no one was there. It was all on me. So I went into the chapel, brought a small table into the sanctuary, strained to get it up o the table then decided it was better on the floor. Laid red and purple cloths over the table.
Then gathered the leftover palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. And a small metal pot. Went out on the steps. Filled the pot with an old page from the Times and then the balled up dried out palms. Lit a long match. And watched the flames rise. A child watches, mesmerized. An old black man says So that’s where the ashes come from, And I say Yes, And he says, All these years, I never knew that.
Awhile later, there were ashes. I took a small amount of olive oil, added I to the ashes and stored. I was ready. My Presbyterian ancestors in the hills of western Pennsylvania would never understand why I do this.
My first visitor comes around noon. A Latino construction worker in a hard hat. I button my white clergy shirt. Put on my red stole. The one from the Buddhist manifestation of the light ceremony. I dip my thumb in the ashes. Make the sign of the coss on his forehead. Mi hermano, se recuerda que se viene a polvo y al polvo se va regresar…And he nods. En el nombre del padre, del hijo , y el espirito santo. Amen.
There’s an intermittent stream throughout the day. Individuals. A whole cadre of Hispanic women. I greet two Koreans who only want to rent space. An old black woman who juts wants to sit and pray. At the end of the day, one of the counter guys from Barney Greengrass comes in. I get my coffee from him every day and we exchange greetings and have a good afternoons. One time I heard him singing a song absent mindedly and I finished his line. He’d been in earlier. Told me he’d wondered where he’d find ashes, what with his work schedule and all, He’s wearing his counter guys white. As I put the ashes on his forehead, I say, Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit, Amen.
I remember the time a bus driver raced in form the bus stop in front of the church, asked for ashes, received them and raced. back to his bus. It means a lot to me, to be able to do this for people. To take my part in a ritual that goes back centuries. In this city. My city. And to dust we shall return.