Opinion

Ash Wednesday doesn’t need to sparkle

The Most Rev. John G. Vlazny, his forehead smudged with ashes, performs the Ash Wednesday ceremony on parishioners in Portland, Ore., in 2005. Photo by Michael Lloyd

(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.


RELATED: ‘Glitter Ash Wednesday’ sparkles for LGBT Christians and others


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.

The Glitter Ash Wednesday logo. Image courtesy of Queer Virtue

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)

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Jacob Lupfer

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  • “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,” – another example of why women should not be pastors. LGBT and rebellion against Christ are more important to them than Christ’s focus of turning from sin.

  • The problem is that however symbolic the traditions of the past, they can’t answer for the divergence of opinion among those who identify as Christians. Mr. Lupfer’s chagrin addresses something that is in reality quite inconsequential. Liturgical practices are fine when they actively point us to greater truths as he well notes, but glitter or no glitter, the question of how the Church Universal addresses this issue that deeply divides is of greater import. Cutting rather ham handedly with a large cleaver, I predict that ultimately we will find ourselves with two Churches; One that will find a way to reach gay people compassionately and inclusively without compromising classical Christian teaching, the Other a Church that will abandon all pretense of biblical orthodoxy in the name of inclusiveness alone.

  • Ashes are a sign of humility, penitence, and acknowledgement that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return. They are not a lapel ribbon to proclaim one’s support for the fashionable cause du jour. As a gay Christian, I find the idea of glitter ashes repugnant and entirely wrong-headed.

  • As a gay man, I did not ask for this and feel that it not only trivializes Ash Wednesday, but trivializes/stereotypes me.

  • If you had any respect for Christ, insetad of assuming he is just like you, YOU would understand, oh sandimonious one.

  • I don’t assume he is like me. I try to be as He would be. That’s why you have difficulties.

  • Ah yes, the issue of fine LBTG folks brings the Sandimonious Queen of Mean out of the woodwork to spread her hate. Go away troll.

  • Good comment Edward, “Liturgical practices are fine when they actively point us to greater truths.” That’s the point.

    I don’t support glitter ash, even though I find the mistreatment of LBTG people by right wing churches appalling. I support 99% of the efforts to acknowledge that LBTG are beloved children of god, but I think glitter ash is the right goal in the wrong place and time.

    We disagree here Edward, as you know, “classical Christian teaching” is wrong. Reviving a dead language is incredibly complex, difficult, and full of the best intentioned errors. Take the word “to.”

    I’m using English as an example. If no one spoke the language but a book was discovered and an attempt was made to decipher the strange markings on the paper let’s say they began with “to.”

    Perhaps they correctly figured out that it meant something like “toward.” But then they came to “too.” The experts say it doesn’t seem to fit quite right. But it must be nearly the same because the marks are so similar. They think, since many known languages differentiate words based on gender, maybe the extra letter means female. Next is “toe.” Again, an extra letter. Male? But then there’s “toed.” Now what? Verb tense? But what about “toad?” And “tow, towed, two, twos?”

    Errors are often not uncovered till a document shows that the initial assumption was wrong. And what if those expert language decoders got a book ofor Shakespeare’s plays? What about that version of English? Or Middle Ages English, which is nearly unintelligible to 21st century English speakers?

    Edward, they did not get it all correctly in the 1400s and 1500s, yet the bible “orthodox” Christianity is based on comes from then, with only minor adjustments. It’s wrong in some major areas.

  • I’m afraid I can’t agree with your arguments about the capability, capacity and accuracy of translation of the biblical texts based on the reading I have done on the subject; I suspect the authorities I would cite would doubtless differ from yours, but rather than engage in a contentious argument about it I’m prepared to simply agree to disagree and leave it at that for now.

  • I didn’t expect you to agree, but I hoped to provide you with some information that might suggest there are other possibilities.

  • I think that in past conversation you have raised the same argument with respect to the formation of scripture so what you suggested this time was not unfamiliar. One of the tendencies of passionate posters, whatever their spiritual, social, or political perspective, is that we repeat ourselves, particularly when our body of reference reinforces our own viewpoint. It is indeed difficult to be wholly objective in one’s views,

  • Mainline Protestants clearly have too much free time on their hands; nobody but a grossly over-privileged and isolated minority would argue about something this trivial.

  • Edward, I see your last comment as something akin to a dodge. What I’ve written isn’t about passion. It’s based on factual evidence. What I am passionate about is that getting this right frees so many people from discrimination erroneously based on the bible.

    I’ve read countless, countless publications about traditional theology. Any reputable Christian graduate school/seminary is stuffed to the gills with them. I could not have attained a graduate degree without having read and thoroughly discussed them, sometimes with the authors and researchers. Some of them were quite conservative and are probably in agreement with you on nearly every aspect of theology and scriptural study.

    In addition, I’ve read and discussed publications by theologians whose research has revealed game changing discoveries and knowledge.

    What I’m talking about isn’t about passion or opinion. It’s about hard evidence, as black and white as mathematics.

  • Then I submit that the authorities, scholars, and theologians that I’ve read among many, hold entirely different opinions based on their studies, and I find their arguments quite plausible.
    My formal education does not rise to the level of a graduate degree, but I have a reasonably facile mind and can suss out and sort arguments and evidence with most anyone barring the odd bunch of very arcane philosophers who often get lost in their own theories. I’m not going to cite either the scholarly magazines or books that I’ve read on the subjects of biblical history and the formation of the canon and the legitimacy of the translations from the original languages.
    But I hold, as I’ve stated before, that if we cannot trust the biblical texts we have been given as a roadmap to faith, then there is little point in pursuing the Christian life at all. There has to be an objective and trusted standard without skeptical equivocation and revisionist theories which ultimately seek to undermine the provisions of the faith. Basic spiritual and moral truths are not subject to evolution. I don’t think you and I can bridge this divide, to my genuine distress.

  • Okay. I’ll invite you to read a couple of theologians at the top of the field. Whether you read them or not is up to you and you needn’t tell me if you do or not. These are on Amazon:

    Phyllis Trible https://goo.gl/uSrZz4
    Arland Hultgren https://goo.gl/D9azHz

    (I do not agree with everything these scholars say.)

    My best to you Edward.

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