(RNS) For nearly 1,500 years, Christians have observed Ash Wednesday with the smear of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, a biblical sign of repentance.
The symbolism is rich: Even in the reality of man’s rebellion and his inevitable death, the Christian’s hope is in the Resurrection.
This year, a tiny subset of progressive U.S. Christians will add a twist — and some sparkle.
An organization called Parity is mixing glitter with ashes as a show of solidarity with LGBT Christians. Churches that make the glitter-ash mixture available will also have plain, traditional ashes.
But the obvious message is that it is preferable to wear an ashen cross made with professional-grade purple glitter.
Regardless of your views on LGBT inclusion in the church, Glitter Ash Wednesday is a mistake.
Deviation from the centuries-old rite makes these few liberal Protestants stand out from the rest of the world’s Christians. Perhaps this is a visible sign of a stark reality: Views on sexuality and gender profoundly divide Christians.
Along with Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is the church’s most solemn fast day. The mood is penitent, and the aesthetics are as dark and bare as the liturgy.
The focus is on turning from sin, and the service emphasizes the universality of sin and the need for redemption. The imposition of ashes is a moment of profound unity in which no fallen sinner is distinguished from any other.
I predict few LGBT-affirming churches will participate, mostly because mainline pastors are loath to alter the traditions of the liturgical calendar, even if they can be quite flexible in other areas.
But the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen hopes I am wrong. An ordained minister with years of experience giving pastoral care to excluded LGBT Christians, she is Parity’s executive director.
“We are finding that they want to share a witness that LGBT people are welcome,” she said.
Mainline churches have gone out of their way to welcome people. Some denominations have staked their future on being on the “right side of history” regarding LGBT affirmation. Perhaps the issue isn’t lack of welcome, but that few people want what is being offered.
As a friend of many Protestant ministers whose churches are bedecked with rainbow flags and who have spent a decade or more fighting for LGBT inclusion, I bristle at the notion that they have to put glitter in their Ash Wednesday ritual to properly welcome LGBT people.
I asked Edmonds-Allen if this was the brainchild of religious leaders or secular organizations.
“We didn’t ask LGBT groups, but before launching, we talked with pastors and theologians from all over, and all loved the idea,” she said.
However well-intentioned, Glitter Ash Wednesday is a distraction at best and a sideshow at worst.
I find it hard to believe pastors and churches that have already evolved on sexual ethics will tamper with the tradition, solemnity and dignity of Ash Wednesday.
American Protestantism is already sharply and visibly divided along pro- and anti-gay lines. Many evangelical churches have made their nonaffirming stance a central part of their identities. It seems liberal churches are being encouraged to define themselves as more committed to LGBT equality than to their particular theological traditions.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians powerfully acknowledge their radical equality before God. They receive an ancient, eternal and visible sign: a simple cross of ashes. The priest or minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
For one day, at least, that should be enough. Ash Wednesday services are neither the time nor the place for churches to fight their perennial battles over LGBT affirmation.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)