Another Problem Solved by Truth-Telling
So ashes aren’t a problem. Glitter itself may not even be the problem. Blending is a problem.
And there is another problem yet.
The problem of singling out. In the article to which I am partly responding, the author makes two suggestions: One, have a glitter + ashes station at a “regular” Ash Wednesday service; Two, have a designated glitter + ashes service on Ash Wednesday.
The assumption here, and I think it is a right one, is that not everyone will want to have glitter + ashes.
So some people glitter and others don’t?
Some people are made of earth and others of earth and stars.
We are all children of Earth and Starry Heaven, yes. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I myself have used glitter to make this point on Ash Wednesday while I was at seminary. I asked my friends if they’d like to be reminded that they are not only of Earth, but also of Heaven, and if they said yes, I’d anoint their hands with glitter.
I now repent (indeed!) of my action. I think it was theologically half-baked.
The point, though is that Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are ALL born of Earth dust and stardust. All dust all the time. All hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen…all the same elements in every. Single. One. Of. Us.
What I mean to say is this: Ash Wednesday says we’re all in this together. “This,” meaning life and creation. “This,” meaning death and transformation. “This,” meaning the need to return to our deepest values.
I think glitter + ashes doesn’t do that. I think it singles out some people in some way and that’s exactly what Ash Wednesday should not do.
But Aren’t You Pagan?
Oh yes. That piece.
I am Pagan. A Christian-adjacent UU Pagan. Yep. That’s me.
But remember, one of the most important pieces of my theology, whatever theological waters I’m swimming in, is this. I insist—inasmuch as possible—for mythical, ritual, liturgical symbols to have integrity. To make sense. To change us in ways that are consistent with our deepest values.
When I observe Samhain, I seek wisdom from and offer thanks and praises to the dead. I eat in silence with places set for my Mighty Dead.
When I observe Beltaine, I delight in the wild horniness of life and the riot of early summer. There is little in the way of silence.
Unless I travel from one hemisphere to the other, North or South, these two holidays are not blended. They are each celebrated in their own time in their own ways in their own places on the Wheel of the Year.
Turning toward Our Deepest Selves
And so I give you a little known fact: You don’t have to be Christian to get ashes imposed. Not even at a Catholic parish. It’s not like the Eucharist, something the Roman Catholic Church considers still a Mystery of Initiation. It’s something designed to remind those connected to Christian theology that we’re all in it together and…
…Perhaps more widely known fact: We all need a tune-up once in a while.
I am not Catholic and I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth’s brutal murder at the hands of the imperialist state did anything to miraculously change the state of my soul. Nonetheless, I appreciate the way Jewish and Christian (and Muslim) myths of people moving toward divinity can help folks live into their deepest values.
In my view, Ash Wednesday is about turning toward those values. It is about acknowledging that we are all human beings and that all human beings often drift from our deepest values. So if we separate people out and say, this service is for people willing to be blended with glitter today and this service is for people who want just ashes today, we destroy a central useful mythic image of the ritual.
And that is a big problem with glitter + ashes. It wrecks the image that speaks to our subconscious mind, and that wreck destroys the liturgy and mangles the theology of the day.
What to Do?
So how can the Church atone for its exclusion and diminishment of people, particularly queer people? If church atonement is the goal, and you want to work on that goal in the context of Ash Wednesday, what might that look like?
First let worship leaders speak the truth.
Let worship leaders say that the Church is an institution run by human beings who have not always interpreted the will of God to be the will of Love.
Let worship leaders remind the congregants that s/he herself will have ashes imposed. All people are welcome to be reminded that all of us miss the mark and need some time to reflect on where we have fallen short and for what we hope.
Let worship leaders remind congregants Ash Wednesday—and the ashes themselves—are not mutually exclusive with hope or with love. They are in fact an expression of hope to aim closer to the mark of love.
Furthermore, in congregations where this is possible, shape the liturgy around not only individual sin, but collective, ecclesial, national, global sin, the falling short of humanity in our lives on Earth.
Make some liturgical choices explicit. How the collective confession of sin is collective. How we sing the songs of repentance together. We worship in community because community challenges us, supports us, and shapes us, and Christians (one assumes) long to be shaped in the image of a loving Savior.
So let us all remember that we are children of Earth and Starry Heaven, and that time exists so that we don’t have to experience everything all at once. Let the liturgical year, like the Wheel of the Year, give us its gifts in turn: Glitter at Christmas, ashes at Ash Wednesday; hot sex at Beltaine and hot bread to eat at Lammas.
Maybe I’ll get ashes imposed this year. Maybe I won’t. There’s a UCC church up the street and an Episcopal parish across the neighborhood.
In any event, I’ll reach back to my Catholic roots and be reminded, We’re all in this together and we all need a tune-up every now and then.
With love and ashes, because love and repentance are not a blending. They are intrinsically bound together, and so I offer them here.