On Ash Wednesday, Emmanuel Episcopal Church offered churchgoers the option of adding glitter to the ash on their foreheads as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ community. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
The ashes on the foreheads of some Christians in Baltimore and around the country for Ash Wednesday — a reminder of human mortality and the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance — got a sparkly, if controversial, twist this year.
Parity, a faith-based organization in New York that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, encouraged churches across the country to also offer ashes mixed with purple glitter to show solidarity with those groups, who organizers say have not been traditionally welcomed in church. They dubbed the event "Glitter+Ash Wednesday."
"For me, glitter and ashes is the hope I feel in the resurrection of Christ," said the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity's executive director. "As a Christian, I claim that resurrection."
Others bristled at the idea of altering a nearly 1,500-year-old liturgical tradition.
"Christianity is already divided, and now it's along pro- and anti-gay lines," said Jacob Lupfer, a 36-year-old columnist for Religion News Service who lives in Arbutus. "Ash Wednesday is probably the least helpful day to exacerbate those tensions. ... It's liturgically inappropriate to tamper with such an ancient and solemn rite."
Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon was the sole church in Baltimore to offer the glitter ashes.
The Slate Project — a Baltimore-based Christian community that meets online and in person — distributed them on a "to-go" basis at Penn Station in the morning, in Charles Village in the afternoon, and near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus in the late afternoon and evening.
David Davis, 53, who works in finance at the state health department, received the glitter ashes at Emmanuel's noon Ash Wednesday Mass. The glitter was optional, and he said he was surprised to see it offered after a Gospel reading about worshipping, fasting and giving alms privately. But he added that he believed it was the right thing to do.
"I'm still processing how I feel about it," said Davis, who regularly attends St. John's Episcopal Church in Hagerstown, where he lives.
"It's not that I object to the concept," he said. "It's just that we'd had a Gospel reading about doing things in private. I support the notion of what it's trying to symbolize and remind us all of. The ashes remind us of our mortality; this sort of reminds us all that Christianity isn't where it ought to be yet."
Anne Marie Mazur, 48, of Remington received her ashes at a morning Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. (The archdiocese did not offer glitter with the ashes, spokesman Sean Caine said. He declined to comment further.)
"As a Catholic, it's a symbol that we are all sinners," Mazur said.
Mazur said she doesn't find the idea of glitter in the ashes inappropriate.
"It's not for us to judge other people's paths," she said. "We should pray upon it and accept people. We shouldn't be shunning people."
The Rev. Jason Chesnut, founder of the Slate Project, said he hoped the glitter ash would serve the same purpose as displaying a rainbow flag or a safe-space sticker — to show solidarity with the LGBTQ movement.
Chesnut, who goes by @crazypastor on Twitter, said he enjoys interacting with people on the street, "being a Christian presence that's not yelling at people, damning them, condemning them." He said Glitter+Ash Wednesday was a chance to support the LGBTQ community and provide an alternative view of what it means to be Christian.
"It's important, especially given the rescinding of LGBT rights in schools," he said. "The LGBT community is feeling vulnerable right now."
The Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, an organizer and Episcopal priest who wrote the book "Queer Virtue," said Glitter+Ash Wednesday wasn't meant as a sign of disrespect to the solemn Christian tradition. Rather, she said, the purpose is to make progressive Christians more visible and let LGBTQ people know they're accepted and loved.
"When progressive Christians go all stealth, we contribute to the problem," she said.
Glitter has its own meaning in the LGBTQ community: It's a sign of coming out, which is both a milestone in that person's life and one that often exposes them to rejection, bigotry and violence, Edman said.
"It matters to understand that queer people understand very much the life-and-death aspect of Ash Wednesday," she said. "Some people hear 'glitter' and think it's frivolous. For queer people, glitter is serious business."
In her book, Edman said, she contends that Christianity is inherently queer, not sexually but spiritually. Christians believe Jesus bridged many traditional gaps, she said, between human and divine, sinners and saints, life and death.
"Jesus was constantly getting us to hit a reset button," Edman said. "Most important was between self and other, when he asks the question, 'Who is my neighbor?'"
The Rev. Joseph Wood, assistant rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, said he's heard responses such as, "Leave the glitter for Mardi Gras." He said he appreciates the concern of those who say liturgical innovation should not be done lightly. But he thought offering glitter ashes was worthwhile.
"It's part of the continued efforts to offer greater and greater examples of love, day in and day out," he said.
If nothing else, said Parity's Edmonds-Allen, adding glitter to Ash Wednesday was a chance to stoke a discussion about how Christians practice their faith.
"As a minister, I feel sorry when religious holidays and traditions are ignored," she said. "By golly, Ash Wednesday isn't being ignored."