A Glittering Hope – Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
In Thy Word, Lord, is my trust,
To Thy mercies fast I fly;
Though I am but clay and dust,
Yet Thy grace can lift me high. Amen.
Long ago, in a galaxy far far away, there existed a Lent that was dismal and horrible, in which we all felt bad about ourselves and gave up everything that was ever good. But I don’t really know anything about this Lent because, by the time I was born, progressive mainline Christians had begun to invest themselves enthusiastically in ridding Lent of guilt and despair and anything that would make us feel too bad about ourselves. For many educated, enlightened, Blue State kinds of Christians, especially those who knew all too well the dangers of judgmental religion, Lent was no longer about individual sin at all. Instead, Lent became a time to lament the big societal evils that all the smart people had already denounced, or Lent morphed into a period of days in which we made a few more charity donations and spent a little more time at the local soup kitchen, or Lent was simply characterized as a season in which to have a few precious moments of quiet for ourselves: think of it as 40 days of mindfulness meditation. Gone were the days of shame and guilt and punishment and self-denial forever.
But then there was the backlash. Some folks were relieved that Lent no longer carried its dreadful associations and eagerly eased into this new, gentler, kinder type of Lent, but others were downright offended that Lent had been stripped of its essential masochism. They saw the rest of us as soft and weak and longed for a romantic, idealistic Lent that made us all feel really, really terrible. What was the point of Lent, they said, if it didn’t force us to recognize and reflect on the basic evil in our human souls and our constant failures to avoid sinful thoughts and actions? Wasn’t Lent supposed to take us down a peg and deflate our swollen egos? If we didn’t refrain from eating tasty food and pray twice as hard as usual and just generally look depressed weren’t we missing the whole message of Christianity? Scripture, they would say, makes very clear that we are all corrupted by sin and pride and have a responsibility to repent.
The reality, though, is far more ambiguous. Fasting, self-denial and self-discipline do appear throughout the Bible alongside guilt and sin and self-loathing. However, Jesus makes clear that these are not practices and ways of thinking we should participate in lightly or uncritically. He tells us to go into our room and shut the door when we want to pray, to give alms when no one is watching, and, when we are fasting, to pretend as if we are not. He assumes that we will pray and fast and give alms, but it’s hard to imagine that he would have been ok with any kind of ostentatious religious ritual related to these practices, especially the splattering of a religious icon on one’s forehead for all to see. Meanwhile, Isaiah commends the work of service and justice, but specifically condemns a penitential practice associated with sackcloth and ashes. In both cases, the kinds of activities we engage ourselves in on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent are not looked at with great esteem by the writers of the Bible—and believe it or not, these aren’t scripture verses I cherrypicked in order to prove a point; these are the passages the Church itself requires us to read every year on this day when Lent begins! The fact that these precise passages push back against fasting and prayer and penitence says something profound about the Bible’s ambivalent attitude towards these customs in general.
Ash Wednesday, then, is a quite confused observance. It seems simple: we impose ashes on one another to remind ourselves of our mortality and our need to turn from our sin and back towards God. But the Scripture readings assigned for Ash Wednesday themselves highlight the danger that lurks in going about things in this way. If you really take these lessons seriously, the ashes we use today can be as much our downfall as the keys to our holiness and freedom. What if these ashes become for us a badge of honor that bolsters our pride or a self-indulgent distraction from the needs of the world? You can understand why folks have tried over the years to re-imagine Ash Wednesday and the longer season that it inaugurates. There seems to be something funny about Ash Wednesday that needs correcting.
A brand new re-imagining of Ash Wednesday sprung up just a few weeks ago and was enacted for the first time today in cities across the country. It’s called Glitter + Ash, and it involves offering at the imposition of ashes a mixture of ashes and purple glitter. Organizers hoped to encourage a demonstration of visibility and strength on the part of progressive, especially LGBTQ-affirming, Christians. Glitter, they explained, is how queer people over time have “displayed [their] gritty, scandalous hope,” and they proposed that Christians combine glitter and ash this Ash Wednesday to witness to the hope that is present even in the acknowledgement of impermanence and death.
Unfortunately for the organizers, this idea made some people pretty mad. If you think our current rancor about national politics is something, I encourage you to look up Glitter + Ash online and read some of the stories and thoughts that you find there. Christians of all stripes—liberal and conservative, from several different denominations and traditions—found this concept horribly offensive, an ill-informed diversion from everything Ash Wednesday was supposed to be about. I have to admit that my own initial reaction was one of condescending laughter. But as I continued to explain the practice to colleagues and friends—admittedly in a perverse effort to elongate my enjoyment of its absurdity—I found myself eventually understanding the wisdom behind it. Ash Wednesday, I realized anew, is not fundamentally about mortality or humility or guilt or sin; it’s not even predominantly about service or justice or finding enough space in a chaotic world. It’s about hope—the hope that, even though we are fragile, flawed and twisted creatures beaten by the world and destined to die, God sees us as worthy of being loved and restored; the hope that rebuilding, repairing and reconciliation are possible, even when all seems lost; the hope that though we have nothing we may yet possess everything; the hope that, while the treasures that are around us will disintegrate and fade, we will build up treasures for ourselves in heaven. Why would we put ashes on our foreheads if they were just a death sentence? Why bother? We put ashes on our foreheads because we have hope—hope that despite our inescapable finitude there is reason to trust in God.
I think there’s a lot to be said for feeling humble on Ash Wednesday and throughout the season of Lent. We need the reminder that we are ash—that we are not the center of the universe, some flawless paragon of excellence far removed from the grime and sludge of compromised, imperfect humanity. But on Ash Wednesday we also strive to have faith in God’s promise to always care for us and welcome us back home—which is why we have to be reminded that we are glitter too. “Glitter never gives up,” the organizers of Glitter + Ash declare, “and neither do we.”