Glitter Ash Wednesday takes ritual, adds glitter, mixes in meaning, sparks debate

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 28, 2017
Glitter Ash

Glitter ashes for Glitter+Ash Wednesday have a distinctly different look than traditional ashes used to remind people about their mortality on the first day of Lent. Photo: Glitter+Ash Wednesday via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Ashes on the forehead are arguably the most conspicuous mark of a Christian during the year. Signifying mortality and repentance, they are a visible sign to the world on Ash Wednesday that a believer is preparing for the season of Lent.

It is the conspicuousness of the ashes that the Rev. Elizabeth Edman, an Episcopal priest in the New York City area, saw as an opportunity to convey additional meaning. This Ash Wednesday, with the help of an ecumenical faith-based LGBT advocacy group called Parity, she is starting what she hopes will become an annual tradition for Christians who support gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

Introducing Glitter Ash Wednesday.

The concept behind Glitter Ash Wednesday is exactly as it sounds. Parity has been distributing ashes mixed with purple glitter for free to any clergy member or lay person who requests them for use this Ash Wednesday, March 1. As of last weekend, at least 139 orders had been shipped, Edman said, including to several Episcopal priests around the country.

“I didn’t want to do something that could be interpreted as frivolous and disrespectful,” Edman said, though she understands not everyone will embrace the idea.

Wearing glitter is about more than celebration for the gay community, Edman said. Like ashes for Christians, it is a conspicuous symbol of one’s identity, and she sees that as an appropriate parallel to draw on Ash Wednesday.

“It’s not just about inclusion and tolerance. It’s about more than that,” Edman said. “It’s about upending power structures that do violence to people, and particularly that do spiritual violence to people.”

The Rev. Joseph Wood, assistant rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, is among the clergy participating in Glitter Ash Wednesday, which has its own Facebook page and is generating headlines around the country.

“I’ll be very curious what the response will be tomorrow when people are faced with the reality of glitter ashes,” Wood said in an interview Feb. 28.

He ordered glitter ashes from Parity because he thought it was “a clever idea” that built upon the “ashes to go” ministries that are common on Ash Wednesday. By imposing ashes on street corners, congregations can connect with people where they are, including people who never set foot in a church, he said, and he is bringing the same spirit to glitter ashes.

And although the Episcopal Church has made strides toward welcoming people regardless of sexual orientation, Wood said, “I think it can be easy to kid of rest on our laurels” in the push for “queer equality.”

Wood will offer regular ashes or glitter ashes at the noon and 5:30 p.m. Ash Wednesday services at Emmanuel. The Rev. Karen Coleman plans to do the same at St. James Episcopal Church in Sommerville, Massachusetts, where the congregation holds “ash and dash” hours from 3 to 6:30 p.m.

“We’ve always been a parish that that’s been open and affirming” of gay and lesbian Christians, Coleman said.

Whether worshipers choose traditional ashes or glitter ashes, they won’t have to dash afterward. The church offers a meditation station and encourages people to stay, pray and reflect on the beginning of Lent.

Parity’s website further highlights some of the symbolism that organizers have in mind. Glitter “is like love” as well as “a sign of hope” and a “promise to repent, to show up, to witness, to work. Glitter never gives up – and neither do we.”

The website also notes how glitter has been “an inextricable element of queer history,” particularly because it makes the wearer conspicuous.

Parity offered the ash-glitter mix for free, or for a suggested donation of $10, and the website notes that the glitter ashes have sold out. People looking to receive glitter ashes can check the site’s map of locations. They’re then encouraged to post to social media using the hashtag #GlitterAshWednesday.

The site also emphasizes the religious significance of participation: “Glitter+Ash is an inherently queer sign of Christian belief, blending symbols of mortality and hope, of penance and celebration.”

But that blending of symbols may become spiritually “problematic” and “confusing,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, dean of academic affaris and professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. She would advise clergy against incorporating glitter into their Ash Wednesday rituals.

“It’s an ancient symbol of repentance, of regret … our mortality,” Meyers said. “To try to combine that symbol with glitter, which seems to be about a celebration and an affirmation of a particular group of people, seems to confuse the symbols in a way that doesn’t allow either symbol to work.”

The Book of Common Prayer only specifies that ashes should be imposed, without elaborating on the method or mixture, Meyers said. Traditionally the ashes come from the burnt palm fronds from the previous Easter, but even that aspect of Ash Wednesday is merely a custom for Episcopalians.

“People have to make their own well-informed decisions how to do that,” Meyers said. “There isn’t a rule that says, ‘Thou shall use only this for the ashes.’”

Even so, she suggested that people interested in showing solidarity with LGBT causes can take that on as a Lenten discipline without changing the traditional symbolism of the ashes.

For most people, this Ash Wednesday will go on like any other. There does not seem to be widespread adoption of glitter ash in its first year, and participating Episcopal clergy members appear to be offering it in addition to traditional ashes, leaving it up to worshipers whether to add glitter to their observance.

The Rev. Amy Chambers Cortright learned about Glitter Ash Wednesday from posts on Facebook.

“It really caught my attention, and I wanted to learn more, said Cortright, the priest-in-charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church-Tower Grove in St. Louis, Missouri. “I wish I’d thought of it before.”

Glitter is a substance that clings to you no matter what you do, Cortright said, like “hope that will not fade.”

She ordered the glitter ash and will impose it, as well as traditional ashes, at the church and at an “ashes to go” site on a street corner nearby.

Although most people she has talked to have been supportive, Cortright said she has heard some snarky comments questioning the use of glitter ash.

“I would really ask colleagues to pause and think about what a profound statement it is to our LGBTQ family and reconsider,” she said.

Wood sees in Glitter Ash Wednesday a symbol of solidarity in both the ashes and the glitter.

“We’re all being united in recognition of the bounds of our faith,” he said.

Edman, who also is author of the book “Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity,” said she too has heard people express concern that Glitter Ash Wednesday sets the wrong tone. The use of glitter in this context doesn’t convey joy, she said, “it is serious business for us.”

It shows courage in maintaining a deep sense of identity in an often hostile world, she said, and “in the same way, I’m hoping glitter can be a public witness to a very deep faith.”

On Ash Wednesday, she plans to join with the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director, and distribute glitter ashes in Manhattan at Stonewall National Monument, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which galvanized the early gay rights movement.

Meyers, despite her reservations about glitter ash, supports the Episcopal Church’s efforts to open its doors fully to gays and lesbians. She serves on the steering committee of the Chicago Consultation, a group of Episcopal clergy, bishops and lay people who support those efforts toward inclusion.

And as chair of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music from 2009 to 2015, she oversaw the commission’s drafting of rites for same-sex marriages. Based on the commission’s work, General Convention in 2015  made canonical and liturgical changes to provide marriage equality for Episcopalians.

“I see people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer as part of God’s wonderfully diverse humanity,” Meyers said. “I am delighted that the Episcopal Church has moved more and more into a welcoming stance.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

 


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Comments (38)

  1. I agree with Dr Meyers that the mixing of glitter with the ashes is a confusion of symbols and a misunderstanding of the visibility of ashes. That the visibility of ashes on one’s forehead identifies one as a Christian is a secondary effect. The primary purpose is to acknowledge our complicity in all that obstructs the dignity of creation and of human beings and our commitment to ‘repent and return to the Lord’. Wearing ashes, unadorned and stark, can be a sign of our own repentance from any actions that deny the full humanity of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

    We sometimes try to overload symbols and, in the process, dilute their ability to catch our attention.

  2. David Rodgers says:

    Let’s sacramentalize sin.

    1. Adrian A. Amaya says:

      Do you mean the sin of tackiness or intolerance?

  3. Ronald Lind Reed says:

    Interesting: I had for thirty years years used both the phrases “You are dust,etc and You are star dust, etc.” as a way of connecting our mortality to the reality of the whole and lively universe, to infinitude as residing in infinity and the theology of recapitulation. I suppose I might have considered glitter incorporated in some way, maybe more on Easter as another way of connecting death and resurrection. As a symbolic statement to include humans who are already included as we are all as the children of the divine. . . got to give that some thinking. Maybe the deepest issue to me is to rethink sin and repentance as connected to death and eternal life. I guess I have come to see original sin as a way of understanding the great sins of human history such as original sin as in particular my/our American original sin of slavery/racism that continues to plague us all systemically. That original sin needs my/our penitence daily and recognition of its permeation into all exclusionary devices. For that I understand the imposition of good plain ash. . .

  4. P K Alford says:

    So glad to see a priest who actually acts upon the Gospel reading for the day.
    Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
    “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

    1. PK Alford – thank you for that. I was wallowing in the tradition and you have refocused me on Christ’s words. This debate is a distraction – eyes back on the cross, y’all!

  5. John Speller says:

    We tried this about ten years ago with the children of the church. The priest imposed the ashes with the words, “Remember that stardust thou art and to stardust thou shalt return.”

  6. James M. Bimbi says:

    And Jesus said, “When you put ashes on your forehead as a sign of your mortality, do not mix them with your political or social causes, for that is what the self-congratulatory do, in order to be seen and admired by others. But when you put ashes on your forehead, keep it simple and seek not to send a message to your brothers and sisters, and God who sees in secret will not laugh at loud at your vain attempt to be relevant.”

    1. Rebecca K Smith says:

      Oh my goodness that is so well said, even though I am a firm believer in not adding or subtracting anything from scripture. I do concur that by adding glitter you may as well dress in Rags and place a gold necklace about your neck so that others may see that you are basically being a pharisee…oh see what I have done this day.

  7. Jerry Emerson says:

    So we are to ask for glitter ashes if we support our LGBT brothers, sisters, or others. OK, if offered, I will take on the glitter ashes. Now, I wonder how many LGBT folks will take on plain ashes in support of their straight brothers and sisters?

    1. Steven Catanich says:

      As a life long Episcopalian who happens to be a gay man, I consider this to be a poor idea. It mixes two symbols, cheapening them both. By having two sets of ashes, we further divide ourselves. Let’s keep this ancient rite solemn. Bling and commercialism have stolen Christmas and to some degree Easter, do we need to secularize Ash Wednesday as well?

  8. The Rev. William D. Razz Waff, DMin, BCC says:

    This strikes me as mixing metaphors, or in this case, sacramentals signs. The starkness of the black ashes- signifying our mortality- should be more than sufficient for Ash Wednesday.

  9. John Smart says:

    As a gay man, a Christian and an increasingly annoyed Episcopalian let me state clearly: This is the worse idea i’ve heard in a very long time. What is wrong with Episcopalians of this generation? Esp, frankly, straight , white ones. Why must they always chose the most vapid expression of banal liberalism and call it “support” for their victim of the week. It is degrading. It is condescending. It is all the worst of PC culture rapped up in the condescending belief that gay people are weak children who need long standing – sexuality neutral – traditions changed or we might suddenly not feel included and cry in the corner. It is so offensive. I am so sick of it. I NEED MY MORTALITY AND COMMITMENT TO CHRIST AFFIRMED ON ASH WEDNESDAY. Not my gayness. Lord I really want to slap these insulting “liberals” . Perhaps next year they can infantilize us more by pushing our foreheads with silly putty and afterward we can all go make gay theme crafts with dry macaroni and paper plates.

    1. Kellie Wachter says:

      I love you John Smart!

    2. Bill Louis says:

      Well said John!

    3. Bob Griffith says:

      I love this, John. As you do, I am fed up with it all. Do you mind if I use your words – quote you if you want me to use your name?

      1. John Smart says:

        Bob, Of course. It is all in public now.

        God Bless.

    4. Ian B Montgomery says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The ashes are about our sinfulness and mortality not our sexuality. Ruth Myers is right…..and if CDSP is against it……:;)

  10. G H Clayton says:

    Ash Wednesday isn’t about sexual orientation. It is about death. Please leave the glitter outside.

  11. Pjcabbiness says:

    Frivolous, disrespectful, theologically unsound and utterly juvenile.

  12. Daniel Anderson Pulley says:

    As a gay man I think this is awful. Some priests need to go back to seminary.

  13. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    I never have understood people proudly wearing their ashes all day, hoping they will be asked what they mean so they can set themselves apart from their neighbors and co-workers who are mystified by the practice. After pronouncing to the congregation the reasons ashes of repentance are in order, and marking my forehead and theirs, I always washed them off before appearing in public. “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others…”

    1. Ronald Lind Reed says:

      Me, too. End of Ash Wednesday, off with ashes. . . and no drive-bys either.

  14. Ann A Whitfield says:

    Another reason to leave the Episcopal church. ALL people need to be reminded of the sacrifice of Christ, that they are loved and forgiven, that God created us from the dust of the earth and to that dust we shall return. ALL people – not just GLBT. Why should they be set apart, yet again, as different, special, and above the traditions of God’s church. You’ve been part of the church for millions of years, we all know you’re here, ordained, and a blessed gift to us all. Why do you have to make light of a profound tradition and the beginning of a time of deep repentance before Christ’s Passion. I think it goes well beyond a sexual preference. To be trite : All Life Matters.

  15. Anne Bay says:

    Spiritual symbolism is always a fascinating part of any religious entity. This was a very interesting article. I am not familiar with the “Glitter” ashes. I think it’s always a good idea to bring awareness to the LGBT Community and the thinking behind the “Glitter” ashes I think does this. With the current Trump era of hate and racism and anti-almost every treasured gift of diversity we have in the U.S. I can understand the possibility of this being a positive way to support diversity, with focus on the LGBT Community. I don’t think it detracts from the ‘old-timers’ like me who are used to doing the ashes the same way every year. As I am a senior citizen now, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned is variety and change are crucial to enlighten and brighten our lives. Of course, people can choose which ashes to have. Having a child who is now an adult but was in high school when there was a new awareness of the LGBT Community I can say we’ve come a ways, but we have a long way to go.

  16. Karen D Powers says:

    Did ashes need an “opportunity to convey additional meaning”? No matter what the reason or cause may be, I, for one, do not think so.

  17. Vicki Gray says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Ruth Meyers. Transgendered and ordained, I need no “glitter” on the foreheads of others to feel comfortable and affirmed in my identity or to remind me to strive every day to upend oppressive power structures. On Ash Wednesday, I feel a need to pause and reflect on my mortality. “Glitter” is but a frivolous distraction from that necessary task of reflection.

  18. Paul Barthelemy says:

    In the late 1970s I was assistant to The Very Reverend Robert Greenfield, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Portland, Oregon. At our first Ash Wednesday service Dean Greenfield did something that I had never seen done before. On a table in the narthex he had placed a small bowl of water and tissues. He told the congregation to wipe the ashes off their foreheads as they left the church. No other action is more in keeping with the Ash Wednesday gospel than that. I have done the same at every Ash Wednesday service I have officiated at ever since. Too often we emerge from the service wearing the ashes as if they were a badge of honor we are showing off to those without a smudge on their foreheads. That, it seems to me, is totally the opposite of the meaning of the gospel. I’m afraid glitter ashes takes that self-centered opposition to new heights!

  19. Fr. Carlton Kelley says:

    This is a silly idea lacking any theological or spiritual integrity. I am a gay man who is a priest and, quite frankly, consider it an insult. Please save us from the “creativity” that others feel called to exercise around the liturgy. What about probing more deeply into what our given symbols mean? Read the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, for pity sakes!

  20. Anne Omelianowich says:

    When I first read the article, I was impressed with the connection of mortality and the universal truth that we all are the same, and all are one. I thought ‘what a creative and expressive idea’ and thought also that it could deepen further the unity we all surely embrace as God’s creations. But then I read all of the comments posted here; and that discussion caused me to pause and take another look. What impacted me most was the reaction of LGBT people. Too often we look at things from the view of an observer and think we have inspired ideas that should have been vetted with those directly affected.
    The ashes I receive today will not have any glitter in them, but in my heart there is a deepened call to oneness in our mortality.

  21. Liz Zivanov says:

    No. This is just wrong on so many levels. It dilutes and makes a mockery of the symbolism of the ashes and serves no purpose other than to set LGBT Christians apart. This day is about our humanity, not sexual orientation or race or ethnicity. Just leave the ashes alone.

  22. Doug Desper says:

    General Convention has used the mistaken view of Via Media (reduced as only “compromise”) to under-gird its positions taken on many issues. Now that marriage has been redefined according to human terms there can never be a reason to refuse a blessing on the many unique future pairings that society will invent for itself. Within 75 years this Church will be forced to bless 3 people in a marriage – because that is a direction that society is already leaning. Having jettisoned all restraint except “what is fair and loving” there will be no choice. So, I guess, our liturgy will also continue to become more inventive and of the “Church of Me” as a consequence. That door was flung open and this type of Ash Wednesday practice is the reaping.

    But, there may still be enough who believe that the self-aggrandizing, self-promotion, identity politics, and cultural drift that often passes for “respecting the dignity of all persons” needs repentance rather than accommodation.

  23. Terry Francis says:

    Another worthless, hollow theological gimmick compliments of the progressive left clergy of this Church. When even LGBT members think this is a dumb idea that should tell you something. Will the foolishness never end?

  24. Carla Haughton says:

    From Glitter to Glitter
    …19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20All go to the same place. All came from the glitter and all return to the glitter.

    Why make a mockery of the ashes that have for centuries indicated repentance and a focus outside of one’s self – outside of one’s identity? The point of the ashes is to point to an identity in Christ. To make Ash Wednesday a political statement is just wrong

  25. The Rev. Dr. Gerard F. Beritela says:

    I’m another Gay man who thinks this idea is misguided. Glitter ashes completely misses the point about Ash Wednesday. It’s about acknowledging our mortality, the fact that we all come from the dust of the earth and return to it again. (By the way, the “stardust” alternative is just as misguided, or even more so, in my opinion. It seems to leave the worshiper with an inflated feeling about their nature, just the OPPOSITE of what Ash Wednesday is all about).

    Why can’t we accept for once the stark reality of our own limitations? Our culture is so obsessed with denying the reality of death, we shouldn’t be denying it on the one day in the Christian year we are bidden to embrace it!

    Don’t get me wrong, I love being gay, I love the Episcopal Church’s inclusion and I love glitter! Just not on Ash Wednesday.

    1. Mary Clinard Borge says:

      I love the focus of your comment. However, being LGBT, or being part of any minority group, brings with it not being part of the power-wielding majority. Therefore, what any Christian does to show loving support for “the least of these” (anyone in a vulnerable -non-dominant- position) is likely a wonderful thing to celebrate by Christ and His friends in Heavenly bliss. I believe those who developed this glitter ash had only love and respect in mind. Church tradition certainly cannot stand against that kind of Christ-like boldness or we will become Pharisees all over again. Please accept others’ statements of love with gratitude and humility, my friends of every orientation!!

      1. Wm. Van Ness says:

        Good intentions do not make a bad idea any less bad.

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