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Ash is Enough

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Lent according to Wikipedia “is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar of many Christian denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday.The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, alms giving, and self-denial.” This begins with Ash Wednesday coming up on the 1st where ashes are applied indicting our own mortality as we trace the story of Jesus as he faces Jerusalem, his betrayal, and his own death.

I want to juxtaposition this with a recent story. A group called Parity, which is working for LGBT inclusion in the church has proposed that instead of only applying ash, we should mix the ash with glitter. Why you ask? They write:

Glitter is an inextricable element of queer history. It is how we have displayed our gritty, scandalous hope. We make ourselves fabulously conspicuous, giving offense to the arbiters of respectability that allow coercive power to flourish. Glitter+Ash is an inherently queer sign of Christian belief, blending symbols of mortality and hope, of penance and celebration. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a season of repentance. During Lent, Christians look inward and take account to move forward with greater health. God insists that we look for the spark of life, of hope, in ourselves and one another. This Ash Wednesday, we will make that spark easier to see. We will stand witness to the gritty, glittery, scandalous hope that exists in the very marrow of our tradition.

Suffice it to say this proposal was met with overwhelming anger among more conservative Christians. Most progressive churches never picked up on the proposal, including the one I serve. But let’s look at the anger first, because it can be instructive.

Some of the anger came from those that do not want to acknowledge the lives of LGBT folks in the church. We’re familiar with that kind of anger. Some of the anger came because Ash Wednesday is such a central rite in the Christian tradition. Any attempt to make changes would anger some. This rite is focused not on new life, not on hope, not on being fabulous or being celebratory, but on death, Jesus’s death and our own, and on repentance.

I admit, I buy that last claim. We have many occasions in the secular and religious calendar to celebrate life. And we should. But we have few occasions for self-examination, few to consider our own mortality, few to consider sin and its affects and for the need for repentance.

Does it make sense to add glitter to such a time or would we lose one of the few times we have for confession and consider our common lot in life. I think the organizers were aware of this concern, which is why they stressed mixing the glitter with the ash. They argued that there is a relation between hope and new life as much as on death, on transformation as much as on repentance.

Connecting the two makes sense to me. Because our tradition has affirmed two claims at the same time. We are made of dust, to dust we shall go. And we are made a little lower than angels. We are both finite creatures and we have the capacity for self-transcendence. We are as Martin Luther writes: sinner and saint

Any attempt to sideline one side of this dichotomy can get us into trouble. On one side, if we are only impressed by our animal nature, why challenges ourselves to a life of meaning and value beyond feeding our appetites? Why care about justice, beauty, truth, learning, or any higher values when there is Jersey Shore to watch? There is a kind of sin which is a sin against our own divine nature, a sin against our own possibilities, a form of false self-deprecation that denies that we can be anything more than our immediate wants and needs.

And then on the other end, is a kind of arrogance, that never sees faults, but only strengths, pride is the old word for it. In that scenario, we can’t see our common humanity because somehow, we are more gifted, have more things, accomplished more in life, have been recognized more than others. So, that we can’t imagine a time we could ever be dependent on others. We can’t imagine a time when we are not the center of the story, which is to say we cannot imagine when we no longer are.  And we can’t imagine a time when all this more, that we have no longer holds up. This is kind of sin is a sin against our dependence. It ignores our relations to others, it ignores the temporality of existence.

So, these two extremes, pride and self-deprecation, the Christian tradition has sought to address. And the season of Lent is a time to do so.

Now my argument as a progressive is that while I want to acknowledge LGBT folks in the worshiping life of the church, I don’t think glitter is needed for that purpose. I think, that the dust itself combines the two elements I spoke of and that Parity, the LGBT group, wanted to highlight. The dust can be an exercise that focuses on death, on sin, mortality, on repentance. And it can be a sign which makes us think of our connections to one another. When we all apply ash, we share that commonality, as opposed to symbols that set us apart.

There is something about experiencing a common lot in life that can build solidarity. After all, we all are going to get sick, need medical care. So, isn’t health care for all a requirement? If we’re all lucky, we’re all going to get old, not be able to work. So, isn’t retirement security something that should be a given?

The recognition of a common lot also has a way of taking down the divides. From the pope to the president to you and I to the migrant worker to a child we share the same DNA. We all came into the world the same way and we will all exit the world the same way. Speaking of DNA, we know we share 90% of our DNA with chimps, we also share 88% with rats, 84% with our dogs. The divides between us and the animal kingdom begins to fall apart.

When I did an Ash Wednesday service in Lawrence, we focused on another fact that brings us together. Carl Sagan writes that we are made of star dust. “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” That is one way to consider the ash of Ash Wednesday. It’s the star stuff we apply identifying us as sharing a common source. The death of stars produces the spark of life. Life and death have a mutual relation to one another.

It is that moment when we recognize our deep interconnectedness, even dependence, on our natural world, on each other that we’re able to be responsive to the needs of one another, including our self. It’s in that recognition of our fragility, of our common lot in life, and yes even in our death, that we can move to solidarity, that we can cut across the barriers and hierarchies that seem to define human life.

And it;s the basis for repentance, the Christian term, for explaining the response needed when we see a world filled with the kinds of problems we have from deportation raids to hate crimes. Which is why, for me, the dust of Lent, already captures the mix of celebrating life and its possibilities and our own morality and common lot in life. It marks us and our fates as one.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

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