Updated with video on February 18, 2021.
During Lent we follow Jesus into the wilderness, where we wrestle with our common humanity and the arc of death and resurrection. It’s a season of repentance, traditionally signified by the familiar ashes and dust. Here, Daniel Tidwell (Master of Divinity, ‘10), Alumni Programs Coordinator, guides us into Holy Week with a reflection about the formational arc that holds together both death and resurrection. Daniel invites us to wonder how the mingling of ashes and glitter might call each of us to a new form of repentance, one that affirms the humanity in ourselves and in each other, calling us to the violence-defying love of the Spirit of God.
There is a formational arc to the season of Lent—a time of preparing for Holy Week where we play out the days of Jesus’ last meal with the disciples, his betrayal, trial, violent death, and then, hovering over death, the unthinkable—resurrection and the extraordinary/ordinary of life that follows.
Traditionally, new followers of Jesus are baptized at Easter. We recall creation narratives of passing through chaotic waters and the Spirit moving us with Jesus through death and into resurrection. We initiate this journey by reminding one another that “you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” And so, it’s in the birth waters of Baptism at Easter that we are brought into a new life that has passed through death, and yet, lives.
We start with ashes sprinkled over the head or smudged in the shape of a cross, calling us to remember our common humanity; our of-the-earth dustiness—a notion linguistically rooted in our English words for humility, humanity, and humus, and held together in Hebrew with the name of Adam and the word for earth. In short, we mark our heads with dust and ash to ground us in the fact that we are mortal creatures of this shared earth—it’s an acknowledgement that death is part of all of our stories.
Two years ago, Reverend Elizabeth Edman started a movement to begin Lent by imparting ashes mixed with glitter on the heads of LGBTQ Christians. This was born out of grappling with the reality that for many LGBTQ people in our society, the reminder of our mortality and the presence of death is already as ever-present to us as the daily experiences of discrimination and violence that mark our lives. Family rejection; discrimination in housing, jobs, and healthcare; school bullying; sex trafficking; youth homelessness; and outright physical violence are daily realities. These traumas often occur in the name of God, adding another soul-wounding dimension to the violence.
The glitter-ash symbol is tied to a slightly older tradition that emerged in the last decade on the streets of San Francisco, where Episcopal clergy impart ashes alongside a charity group of drag queens known as The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Several years back, the two groups came together—clergy offering ashes and the Sisters offering glitter. LGBTQ Christians, alongside those of other faiths who have been harmed by religion, line up to receive ashes, glitter, or both. It’s an invitation for all who show up to receive recognition of their beloved humanity that shines despite violence and death.
While glitter isn’t a universal symbol for LGBTQ people, it does have a history—connected with drag performers’ spirit of defiance and determination to show up vibrantly—to thrive—in a world that seeks to trample LGBTQ people through traumas, collective and personal. For many of us Christians who are LGBTQ, our bodies have long been marked for death by our own churches and families. And instead of following the arc through death to resurrection, we find ourselves stuck repeating only one part of the Jesus story.
Through the mingling of ash and oil on my own forehead, I am called to remember my shared humanity with every person on earth. The addition of glitter invites me to honor the particularity of my own experience of learning to thrive in a world where many fellow followers of Jesus have been the very agents of harm that have visited death on my own story. To be marked by both ash and glitter helps me hold together in my body that I am a part of this oh-so-human body of Christ. Human cruelty and fragility, and the need for resurrection, exist in me personally and in us collectively. Our repentance is tied up together, but how it gets played out may look different for each of us.
“To be marked by both ash and glitter helps me hold together in my body that I am a part of this oh-so-human body of Christ.”
For fellow Christians who have done violence to your LGBTQ siblings, I wonder about your repentance and where you hear the spirit calling you to our shared humanity. Could it be that you, like Peter, need to be reminded to “call no thing unclean that I have made holy”? And for all of us who follow Jesus, I believe that the call to repentance is a call to turn away from death-dealing and toward life—whether we’ve been involved in directing violence to ourselves or to others. Repentance is always a turn of love; a turn toward each other in response to the Spirit of God.
And here we are in Holy Week, at the end of this journey of Lent, where Jesus walks us into a place where we do not want to go—a place where those of us who love Jesus most dearly, and confess Jesus most devoutly, are confronted by the mirror of our own betrayal; our own breaking point, where we walk away from a God who gives and takes—too much—in the face of human violence. Here Jesus, fully God and fully human, steps in to occupy the space of all types of victimhood, suffering violence—physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual; enduring cutoff, abandonment, condemnation, shame, and assault; facing abuse both systemic and personal. Jesus does not do this because God demands it, or because God cannot stand to face our violence. It is as God that Jesus faces this violence to break its hold on all of us.
On Saturday we’ll face the day on the Christian calendar that is the most perplexing of all. In many ways, it is an un-day; an undoing of who we, as disciples, wanted Jesus to be. On Friday, Jesus walks, bodily, into the way of human violence. And, on Sunday, Jesus offers transforming wounds to welcome us into a new kind of life. But between these days, on Holy Saturday, we wait in the stark undoing of not knowing where or how the Spirit of God will show up. We see that Jesus took on our violence, and we are confronted with the devastation of death. This is not a place we want to linger.
This year, Holy Saturday also marks the 20th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Like every trauma, this particular violence echoes in our collective stories, and it throbs a particular ache within the bodies of those who survived it. All trauma, from violence large or small, leaves a wake. It is the lingering, chaotic water that follows death. And while we can name the impact of particular waves, the pervasive presence of violence has always troubled the waters of the human story. Love in response to violence has always been a defiantly vulnerable act.
“The pervasive presence of violence has always troubled the waters of the human story. Love in response to violence has always been a defiantly vulnerable act.”
This is where the Spirit hovers—between the death of God at the hands of our human violence, and the resurrection of God that raises not only Jesus, but all of us from the grasp of death. Here, in the ashes and void, there is a shimmer across the face of the water. There is a glimmering ache toward life within the wound of death. It is a Queer transition, demanding that the body that has suffered violence will, through love, come forth with a both scarred and holy persistence. Resurrected life is vibrantly defiant—not as though death had not happened, but because it has undergone death and been transformed by love. This is why grief is core to repentance. Grief is the opening of love through which life moves forward out of death.
I try to imagine some reconciliation within the body of Christ over the violence done to LGBTQ people. I try to imagine some repentance in a society committed to keeping guns over protecting human life. I try to imagine repair of racist violence enacted through social structures, and unquestioned bias. And I am exhausted by the ever-presence of death. We need a Jesus who steps into this violence that leads to death. And we need a Spirit who breathes with us, into this chaos that has always been, and offers a lifeline of grief that pulls us through the waters and into hope.
As we walk through Holy Week, may we listen to the Spirit who hovers over us, re-membering who we are as humans, marked by violence, yet joined by a God who is fully with us. This God faces us amidst violence, enters death, and moves with us into life beyond—life marked by death, yet survived by love. May we consider our own participation on all sides of violence and feel the Breath of God hovering in places of death and spinning grief into an opening for love.