It was sometime before my First Communion—Ash Wednesday that year, or perhaps the year before—that the reality of the very first word that Fr. Joseph Malewitz uttered as he made the Sign of the Cross on my forehead with his ash-covered thumb sank in: “Remember, thou art dust.” Even as a young child, I knew the story of the creation of Adam, of God’s molding of his body from clay before animating it with the breath of life. He continued, “To dust thou shalt return.” Even in my earliest illustrated children’s Bible, the story of Adam’s creation was followed by the story of Eve, the serpent, and Adam’s sin, which brought death into the world, and meant that the breath of life would one day leave each man’s body, and his clay would return to the earth.
But that first word—“Remember”—that was what struck me that day, and has remained with me ever since. The knowledge of our mortality cannot—must not—be merely intellectual. That knowledge is something we must remember, hold in our imagination, because only then can it affect our actions, help tame our passions, by reminding us that one day we will find ourselves before the Just Judge, who will hold us to account for all that we did, and all that we did not do. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10; Psalm 111:10).
Adam’s sin brought death into this world, yet, in a bit of divine mercy, the knowledge of our mortality can and should help us to avoid sin. But that requires us to remember, and we all too often forget that “Time, like an ever-rolling stream / bears all its sons away.” That’s why the Catholic Church, in Her supernatural wisdom, makes sure that—at least one day each year—both the faithful who receive and bear the ashes of last year’s palms, and all of those who encounter the faithful that day, cannot help but remember.
All of these thoughts ran through my head as I read a USA Today story entitled “‘Glitter Ash Wednesday’ hopes to sparkle for LGBT Christians, supporters.” According to the article by Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service (which predictably begins, “Lighten up, Ash Wednesday”), “A New York-based advocacy group called Parity is asking Christians who favor LGBT equality—’queer positive Christians,’ in their parlance—to show support by wearing ‘glitter ash’ on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday on March 1.”
Parity is providing the glitter ashes, which it makes by “mixing professional makeup-grade purple glitter with traditional ashes,” free of charge “to any congregation or individual requesting them.” Churches in “California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Alabama and Georgia” have already done so; the Metropolitan Community Church, which performed the first same-sex “marriage” in the United States in 1969, “has committed to using glitter ashes at all of its churches.”
While the executive director of Parity, Marian Edmonds-Allen, presents the wearing of glitter ash as a “queer-positive” act, to show “solidarity” with “queer Christians,” the truth is that Parity is engaging in an objective subversion of the meaning of this penitential act (a fact not likely to have been lost on Edmonds-Allen). Like the holy water with which they are blessed, the blessed ashes are sacramentals, and canon law requires that all sacramentals “are to be treated reverently and are not to be employed for profane or inappropriate use.” Mixing glitter with the ashes is clearly profanation. Moreover, in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula may be used by the priest as he distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The very intent behind the use of “glitter ashes” is “inappropriate,” as this formula makes clear: Calling attention to one’s self-identification with a particular type of sexual sin is hardly the best way to turn away from that sin; it is, however, a very effective way of perverting a Christian symbol and turning it into a political one.
Even if we set aside Parity’s political purpose in providing the glitter ashes, the deeper problem recalled by the traditional formula remains. There is a connection between mortality and morality, and the symbolism of Ash Wednesday—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—reminds us of that connection in order to prepare us for the work of the next forty days. Lent is the period of preparation for Easter, but that shorthand definition does not do justice to the season and its purpose. In Christ’s rising from the dead on Easter Sunday, we place our hope that we will rise from both the spiritual death of sin and the physical death that is its result; but in order to rise from the dead with Christ, we must first pass through the grave with Him, by dying to self through restraining our passions and conforming both our body and our soul to His example.
Needless to say, “glitter ash” will not remind anyone of his mortality, or help him to recall the words of Christ: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Indeed, the very opposite is likely to occur. There’s a reason we use glitter to “pretty things up” for celebrations: It distracts the eye and hides the truth that lies beneath. Yet that truth—the fact of our own mortality, and the need to prepare ourselves to meet our Maker—cannot in the end be evaded, as Shakespeare reminded us in The Merchant of Venice:
All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.
Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Forget the glitter; this Ash Wednesday, use the ashes on your forehead to polish the mirror of your soul instead.