We took ashes out into Dupont Circle this past Ash Wednesday. At 8:30am on Wednesday, Jeff and I roamed around Dupont Circle, stopping at the Dupont Metro for awhile, letting the strangers we were among know that it was Ash Wednesday. “We have ashes for Ash Wednesday. Would you like to receive?” In the evening, we went back out again before our Ash Wednesday service. I went on this shift with Andy Thomas, Pilgrims Young Adult Volunteer, to share ashes in the dark and freezing cold.
Andy and I walked up P Street, stopping a few folks along the way, asking if they’d like to receive ashes. At one point, we were two for two.
That quickly changed as we parked ourselves at the south end of the Dupont Metro. People just blazed past us. It was ear-bud-palooza out there in the evening commute. Don’t want to interact with your environment? Wear ear buds while walking around. Need an excuse not to make eye contact with another human being? Ear buds.
After getting a whole lot of “No’s”, Andy and I walked up to Dupont Circle, traffic circle + public space + resting place for many among the benches that encircle a large, stone water fountain. In reasonable weather, the benches can be lined with bike messengers, homeless folks, folks wearing ties, folks wearing pencil skirts, folks playing chess.
With the temperature around 25 degrees, the benches looked empty until Andy and I noticed 2 figures sitting on the outer circle of benches. We headed over. As we approached the two guys, I noticed one leaning over. As we got closer, we realized the guy was puking.
Stomach bile. Chunks of food. Mouth spit.
First thought–This is fucking gross, turn around and head back to Pilgrim.
Second thought–This is fucking gross, share the ashes.
I asked one of the bench buddies if he’d like ashes. He looked at me with eyes glazed over, slowly rocking back and forth. Somehow he gave a “No.”
I turned to his companion who at this point was sitting upright and wiping puke off his mouth.
I asked him, “Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?”
With the same type of glazed over eyes, with the same type of rocking back and forth, this guy said, “yes.”
I looked up at Andy as if to shore myself up for this moment. Then I blurted out to Andy, “remind me to wash my hands after this.”
Clearly not the most pastoral of words. And true.
I started to lean in to our friend on the bench and he slowly, I mean slowly, lifted up his winter skull cap to make room for the ashes.
“From dust you have come, to dust you shall return” and plunk went the ashes on his skin kept warm by the winter hat. He slowly pulled his skull cap back in place.
Andy and I hustled back to Pilgrims for our 7pm in-the-building worship.
Ritual and liturgy on the streets creates a mash-up of people. Strangers get knocked-up against each other. Separated out from the liner, sequential movement of an in-the-building type of liturgy, ashes on the streets expose ritual’s power. Gone are the pews, the communion table, the font. Gone is the church architecture that sets the context and initial meaning of the ritual.
On the streets, ritual gets blown apart from the confines of Church walls and can be interpreted a million different ways with no one in a robe or a title or ordination status to define.
I have no idea what our friend on the bench was thinking when I asked him about the ashes. What we did see was the lifting of his skull cap. Even though this guy was completely inebriated, he had enough awareness/memory/body memory to lift his hat to make room for the ashes. Does he even remember?
Dupont Circle isn’t too far where the million dollar row houses of Dupont and Georgetown exist. Embassy Row is right up the street. The gardens and front stoops are Southern Living beautiful. The neighborhoods are images of stability.
Dupont Circle absorbs the grid of the city street architecture–Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues come together to create this circular public space. public street space goes from linear and grid-like to circular; the Circle itself being a shape that has no beginning and no end.
Grid of Dupont Circle. The green dot is the Circle.
An experience like our friend on the bench vomiting, and then saying yes to ashes, tells me that the sheer unpredictability of ritual on the streets makes it near impossible to assume the direction of God’s Spirit. We’d like to think faith and Church life move in a grid-like, sequential way: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral.
Out on the streets, God’s Spirit gets vomited up all over the place, the Spirit symbolized in a circle of puke on a public sidewalk and incarnate in the one who vomits.