by Chris Ritter

It’s all over church social media this year:  Parity, a faith-based LGBQT-focused organization based in New York City, is advocating the use of glitter instead of ashes this Ash Wednesday.  “Glitter is an inextricable element of queer history… We make ourselves fabulously conspicuous, giving offense to the arbiters of respectability that allow coercive power to flourish.”  It should come as no surprise that “glitter ash” has inspired a flurry of negative responses.

But I am in favor of the glitter if it causes us to have a serious conversation about what we are doing when we mark our people on Ash Wednesday.

It is a funny thing about badges given for humility.  The moment you accept them you are immediately disqualified. Annually we manage to indulge directly in something Jesus said not to do and feel particularly spiritual in the process.  The Sermon on the Mount:

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

When the Protestant Reformation hit 500 years ago, ashes on the forehead were among the first things to go.  Luther kept Lent along with Ash Wednesday observance but rejected the imposition of ashes upon the people.  The Anglican Prayer Book of Wesley’s day (of which he said “I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breaths more a solid, scriptural, rational piety…”) likewise omitted the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday*.

Wesley seems to have found the whole cultural Lenten enterprise of his day “worldly” in that it tended to encourage piety for a season instead of as a lifestyle. He omitted both Lent and Ash Wednesday from the worship resources he prepared for use by American Methodists upon their departure from Anglicanism.

Most living Methodists did not grow up with Ash Wednesday at all.  The observance, along with the ashes, started to work its way into Protestant circles fairly recently through the influence of the ecumenical movement.  And it was a big hit.

The fact that most church folks like Ash Wednesday is perhaps the best sign that the observance runs directly counter to its goal.  Ashes on the forehead do not humiliate us.  Rather, they show others how spiritual we are… spiritual enough, say, to come to a church service in the middle of the week for the sake of repentance.  And now, as the social media generation takes hold of Lent, the ashes make for an almost irresistible opportunity to get out the selfie stick… like going to the gym, taking a short-term mission trip, or trumpeting your upcoming fast from social media.

It so easily becomes religious glitter… “fabulously conspicuous.”

The thing that first ruined me on Ash Wednesday was doing street ministry during the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras for several years.  The levels of carnal excess reach a fever pitch on Fat Tuesday.  At midnight, mounted police forcibly clear party-goers from the French Quarter to signal the beginning of Lent.  Carnival (Latin for “farewell to the flesh”) is over. It is time to fast.  It is all very religious… and antithetical to the faith of the transformed heart to which we are called.

Another side effect of the imposition of ashes is that it tends to distract us from the method of dealing with personal sin that Jesus and Paul prescribed:  Confess our sins to one another with repentance.  At least our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters pair the use of ashes with their sacrament of penance.  We Protestants might use a general liturgy of confession during worship, but we don’t go the step of naming our personal version of sin out loud. That would be humiliating.

It is possible that Ash Wednesday fills a vacuum in Mainline circles left by de-emphasizing repentance during the celebration of Baptism and Holy Communion. Has turning our two sacraments into shallow, feel-good moments left us on the hunt for a third?

The use of ashes definitely comes off better in Roman Catholic circles where the act is swept up into an institutional understanding of communal unity.  In defense of the imposition of ashes, David Mills writes:

For Catholics, one of the great points of disciplines is that you can do the things you ought to do without worrying about whether you are doing them for the right reasons. You don’t have to worry about showing off because you’re not showing off — you’re just doing what everyone else is doing. You’re just part of the marching band turning left when everyone else does, not a soloist standing at the front of the stage.

Carl Truman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia comments on the sad spectacle of cheap cultural appropriation that ashes on the forehead represent in circles where the practice is used without firm theological underpinnings:

The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.

The Catch-22 of critiquing someone else’s act of repentance is that it can so easily leads to spiritual smugness based on the rituals we do and don’t do.  God looks at the heart.  My purpose here is not to shame those who choose to employ ashes in their worship, but to call us all to deeper reflection. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  (1 Cor. 10:31)

I will lead Ash Wednesday worship again this year, complete with a sermon about the transformed life being the only outward sign of repentance to which we are called.  Last year, we handed out cards and invited people to write down a sin that is separating them from God and for which they chose to repent.  At the end of the service we took and burned them in a fire pit outside the church, turning them to ash.  A live image of the fire was broadcast on the sanctuary screens as we sang.  One year we mixed oil with ashes and invited people to finger-paint a cross on a length of purple fabric as they silently named their sins before God.  We then went outside as this purple drape was hung on our outdoor cross for the Lenten season.  As people drove by over the coming weeks, they were invited to remember that their sins were carried by Christ on the cross.

What we won’t do is put ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our repentance.  Jesus said not to.


*The Book of Common Prayer of Wesley’s time gave the following rubric for Ash Wednesday:

Brethren, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.  Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture; and that ye should answer to every Sentence, Amen: To the intent that, being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners, ye may the rather be moved to earnest and true repentance; and may walk more warily in these dangerous days; fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths the curse of God to be due.