“Glitter and Ashes”

I have to confess that one of the reasons I accepted Jane’s invitation to preach this morning is because I love anointing people with glitter. Yes, glitter.

I first anointed people with glitter as part of a children’s message about the strange story that Jean just read for us. As you heard, Jesus climbed a mountain with Peter and James and John, and while he was there his face “shone like the sun,” and his clothes “became dazzling white.” One way to act out the story is to let your own face shine like the sun—and glitter is as close to that as I could imagine. Somewhat to my surprise adults began to ask—in a half-joking way—if they could be anointed, too. So we did.

I don’t think they asked because they wanted to shine like the sun; I think they asked because they had listened to the whole story. They had heard the voice from the bright cloud that reprised the words from Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

And in some form or another, these are words that we long to hear—the affirmation that we are not only tolerated or welcomed, we are beloved, the affirmation that we are not only guests, but part of the family. And it turns out that glitter is actually a pretty wonderful metaphor to go with that yearning and that experience. For one thing, glitter does not actually shine all by itself —it doesn’t generate light, but rather reflects it. We need to hear we are beloved from other people, not just from ourselves, to really shine.

And for a second, glitter can surprise you by revealing what has been hidden. If you write a word or draw a picture with glue on a piece of paper, and then pour glitter all over the paper, when you shake the glitter off, you will have a picture or a word that is now glitter-ized. The glitter reveals what was otherwise invisible. That’s why Sunday School children love to work with glitter.

On the other hand, Sunday School teachers are ambivalent about glitter because the stuff is so persistent. Once you get some glitter on your skin or on your clothes, you are going to have it there for a while (that’s fair warning for the anointing time, by the way). It clings in that way that when you brush it off, it clings to the thing you tried to brush it off with. Glitter stays with you.

Still, when Peter and James and John saw Jesus’s face illuminated by that reflective, surprising, persistent light, they were not charmed—instead, they fell to the ground and were “overcome by fear.” We ought not to be entirely surprised by that, I think; professions of unconditional love often frighten us with their intensity and intimacy.

In some odd way, the assurance of God’s love can be scarier than doubt about it. If we are not spending time and energy proving to God that we are worthy of love, then our time and energy are available for the work of being God’s people. Jesus is pretty clear about this—his response to their fear was, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

When we do that—when we get up and set our fears aside—then we are people of Glitter. We are reflective, revealing, persistent. We are the people who can have hard conversations about racism, privilege, economic justice, earth care, gender identity—conversations in which we reflect the love of God by showing respect, compassion, and hope for our conversation partners.

When we get up and set fear aside, we can be like the prophets of the past, revealing the uncomfortable facts which are hidden in plain sight. We can see which dangers are real and which ones have been fabricated, which facts are true and which ones are “alternates.”

When we get up and set fear aside, we can cultivate persistence. We can help one another avoid distractions, we can focus our energies, and we can share the burdens of the work.

But we are not just people of glitter. We are also people of ashes.

So another reason that I am drawn to anointing with glitter on Transfiguration Sunday is that it is a dramatic prologue to what will happen here three days from now. It will be Ash Wednesday, and we will be invited to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads or hands.

Ashes absorb light; they do not reflect it.

Ashes hide what is around us; they do not reveal it.

Ashes blow away like dust; they are not persistent.

In that ashy marking on Wednesday we will confess that we have not always loved our neighbors as ourselves, that we have not fed the hungry, housed the homeless, healed the sick, visited the prisoners. We will take upon ourselves a visible sign that we mourn those things we have done and those things we have left undone that now trouble our hearts. We will hear words of forgiveness and hope, even as we commit to spiritual disciplines in preparation for Easter. It is a solemn business, Ash Wednesday.

At some churches the ashes will include a touch of purple glitter, as part of a movement to recognize and repent of the shaming, shunning, and rejection of LGBTQ people. We might add to that the ashes from the Water Protector’s camp that they burned rather than have it be desecrated; we might add ashes from the ruins of wars through the millennia; we might add the ashes of broken promises, unfulfilled dreams, the ashes from acts of cruelty, revenge, and greed.

On Wednesday we will burn last year’s palm parade branches with this year’s written confessions. But the ashes will hold much more than our personal regrets and resolves; they will hold the great weight of struggles and shortcomings of all of us in all times and places.

It may be one of the most challenging parts of the life of faith to hold together these deeply paradoxical events and truths: that we are people of the glitter, and we are people of the ashes. We go to the mountaintop, but cannot stay there. We crawl in the ashes, but we do not stay there either. We proclaim the good news of God’s mercy and justice, and then we struggle to accept it for ourselves.

Scripture isn’t much help in resolving this paradox, but the cycle of the church year at least recognizes that both the glitter and the ashes are authentic and compelling. For the next few days we live in the creative tension of the two, but today, I invite you to come forward to be marked with light.