I’m at the corner of Broadway and West 73rd Street trying to decide whether the security guard at the building next door dislikes me. Earlier he was giving me dirty looks when I bent down to study the sign in front of the church he is guarding. With apologies to a man who is just trying to do his job (though I confess I have never been to a church with a security guard before), it’s sort of hard not to linger over an advertisement for Ash Wednesday service that features an image of a swirling nebula emblazoned with a cross that looks more like two partially torn Band-Aids. Then there’s the slogan: “We are Stardust.”

Glitter+Ash Wednesday is sponsored by a New York–based gay rights organization called Parity. Rutgers Presbyterian Church is one of two houses of worship in the city and dozens throughout the country where an admixture of glitter and ashes is being handed out today, in lieu of the usual repurposed Palm Sunday fronds. Why glitter? According to Parity’s website:

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 in order to move forward with greater health. At this moment in history, glitter ashes will be a powerful reminder of St. Augustine’s teaching that we cannot despair because despair paralyzes, thwarting repentance and impeding the change that we are called to make.

This morning at what is now the Stonewall National Monument in Greenwich Village, the Revs. Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director, and Elizabeth M. Edman, a self-described “Episcopal priest and political strategist,” held a “liturgy” and spent three hours distributing glitter-plus-ashes to passersby. This was “an act of profound love and respect” (the Rev. Edman’s words) that would bear “witness to a gritty, glittery, scandalous hope that is both utterly queer and deeply Christian.”

When I walk up the stone steps of Rutgers at 7:00 p.m., the church is dark and looks empty.

“Welcome.”

A kindly-looking man who is probably in his late fifties or early sixties but could, were it not for his snowy white curly hair, be mistaken for a spry forty-year-old in his slim-fitting blue blazer and tight-ish white trousers, appears out of nowhere and extends his arm. We shake hands.

“Please come up here,” he says, pointing toward the apse. The pews are not quite untenanted. At least sixteen of us are here. There is the smiling woman in the rainbow shawl, the man in the dark suit with no tie, the female couple in sweaters, the groups in the last two rows, one child. Four or five look to be under the age of sixty.

Before I find a seat in one of the unoccupied side pews, my guide hands me a pamphlet. I flip through casually, peering around for someone in a collar or vestments to show up. Across from me, a man in a black jacket is playing softly on the piano. A horizontal streak of light is shining from somewhere in the back onto a trellis that stands where the high altar should be. Otherwise it is still dark. In front of the trellis are two chairs and an empty table on which sit two little dark blue pots that look like the containers for soy sauce at sushi restaurants.

Five minutes pass in silence. It’s cold in here, and I’m already feeling uneasy. There is something unsettling about liberal Christianity, and at moments like this you feel it: the crepuscular gloom, the all-pervading feeling of desperate but resigned optimism, the hope against hope for something ineffable. You find it in Bultmann, in John Robinson’s absurd—and in their way moving—books, on the lips of Iris Murdoch’s faithless priests. It’s not just sadness; it’s also fear. When Tillich says that “Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being,” he wants us to choose being. The alternative, I guess, is to let yourself be devoured by whatever might be lurking in the gray and black rectangles of half-gloom spreading over the empty pews behind me.

Poking around, I reach in desperation for a Bible and a copy of The Presbyterian Hymnal. I am about to open them when the man in the blue blazer reappears and sits down at the table, joined by a large woman with a ponytail and glasses. His tie is patterned with stars.

“So, dear friends, welcome here at the beginning of Lent in Rutgers Presbyterian Church,” he says. “It is great to start this observance in a worshipful way, and it is a great opportunity to center our faith and our hope and our self-reflection in this light. Now I will invite you to join me and Ashley in reading together.” It turns out that this guy is the Rev. Andrew Stehlik mentioned in the pamphlet. Turning the first page of the pamphlet, he begins:

“Gathered in community, we share spiritual union with God and one another.”

All of us read words printed in bold:

“Surrounded by divine Love, we express our deepest hope.”

“The Ever-Present One,” Ashley continues, “moves within, between, and beyond, and we rest in gentle currents of peace.”

“Surrounded by divine Love, we express our deepest hope.”

Our voices are sober, almost funereal. This is not exactly what I had in mind for Glitter Ash Wednesday. Say what you want about us Lefebvrist fellow travelers, but at least at my parish in Washington there are homeless people coming in and out and the mentally ill saying the rosary and babies screaming. It is a relief when Stehlik invites us to stand and sing one verse of “What Wondrous Love Is This” accompanied by the man in black. The singing is very good, some of the best that I’ve heard in a church. The woman in the rainbow shawl has a beautiful clear soprano.

“Our scripture reading is adapted from Psalm 8,” Ashley announces. She isn’t kidding when she says “adapted.” As far as I can tell, it combines at least three distinct, ugly-sounding twentieth-century translations of Scripture. “O Lord, our sovereign” I find only in the New Revised Standard. “Built a fortress” is from the GOD’S WORD® translation courtesy of the GOD’S WORD to the Nations Bible Mission Society of Jacksonville, Florida. “Dominion over the works of your hands” is from the English Standard Version. “Thus you silenced the enemy and the avenger” seems to be an original effort; so does “human children,” which does duty where the NIV has “human beings” and nearly everybody else from the Douay to the NAB has “the son of man.”

Stehlik is a highly effective preacher, though. He has a purring, mesmeric, half-sighing voice that puts you instantly at ease with yourself and the universe—about which he has a lot to say.

“Normally this time of observance is really kind of heavy and serious and it is rightly so,” he says. “We need to examine ourselves, but that examination should bring us up, not bring us down, and in that glitter, in that ash is actually already a germ from the seed.”

He pauses, beaming at us.

Not germs. Germ: germinating towards a new life. Everything we see around ourselves is of that nature. Here I put “We are Stardust.” Everything we see around ourselves is stardust; without stars burning and then shining there’d be only hydrogen and helium, nothing else. Everything—carbon, oxygen, silicon—all the elements are processes. Stars are burning, and ash is what we are. And it’s all awe-inspiring. I don’t know about you but for me it is, thinking that we are stardust or star-ash, that in dying stars, supernovae, all the elements, all the iron, all the gold, all the platinum, everything was the result of explosions of stars.

His favorite astronomical topic, and the inspiration for the sign out front, is the Crab Nebula, which he describes as “absolutely great.” He has a lot to say about it. It is huge, for one thing; it is expanding; it is glowing with divine purpose, and dying at the same time. We owe our existence to the Crab Nebula—in fact, we are the Crab Nebula. My daughters are the Crab Nebula. My recently deceased great-grandmother was the Crab Nebula; my ancestors in England and Ireland and Germany a century and a half ago were the Crab Nebula. David Bowie? Crab Nebula, and so too, presumably, were FDR and Franco and Maupassant and Moses and Liberace and Liberius and the dwellers in Mesopotamia and in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, in saecula saeculorum. “And that it will be the story with us and our generation and the next generation and the next generations after us like it was with generations before us, this bond of life and hope and love.”

Maybe it’s something to do with Stehlik’s genial tone, maybe it’s that I’m getting used to the unsettling darkness of the church’s interior, or maybe it’s just because I’m tired after a very late Fat Tuesday (“Clocks are liberalism,” a friend explained when I suggested we turn in at the stroke of midnight), but as I listen to him and stare down at the front of the pamphlet my thoughts begin to drift. I feel safer and happier. I have a vision of myself soaring wingless, indeed invisible, across an endless post-biological vista, past silver-ringed planets and rainbow clusters of stars into crab nebulas and fish nebulas and egg nebulas and nebulas in extraordinary shapes that defy description, through black holes and red holes and purple holes where I see new colors—interstellar oranges, astral aquamarines, planetary opalescent pinks and turquoises and lemon-lime greens, colors that are two colors at once like coccineous gray, luteous magenta, purpureal goldenrod, and wheaten indigo, colors that are no color at all but not black or all of them without being remotely white—while a reassuring masculine voice leads me on through further reaches of space amid the low hum of bizarre celestial music. Could it be all right if the tomb isn’t empty?

“There is a further dimension to this that I will ask Ashley to talk a little bit more about,” Stehlik says. “It is a special dimension which I very much like.”

Ashley’s Glitter Ash Wednesday message brings me back to earth. “In giving out glitter ashes,” she says, “we are connected to churches and people across the country with our organization that we are partnered with, Parity, in honoring not only our commitment to our faith but our faith’s commitment to all people, including gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.” When she reaches the word “gay,” she jerks her head to the left and gives me an emphatic hopeful stare. I make a mental note that even if the round Gucci frames were the right ones for the shape of my face, I should never have followed the optician’s advice and gone with the rose-gold color.

A lot of what she says sounds like boilerplate from the Parity website. Her voice has a grating, histrionic quality, and when she says certain words—“fragile” is one of them—she karate-chops the air. According to the church website, she has “a MA in Theater Arts from the University of Pittsburgh and a BA in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University.”

When she is finished, Stehlik stands up.

“Before I invite you to come for this sign of solidarity, of life and love, we also prepared something slightly different for Ash Wednesday. Not only this special ash that is sparkling, but also accompanying music.”

He pauses.

“From Joni Mitchell.”

It is to the familiar strains of “Woodstock” that my fellow congregants rise to receive their glitter-plus-ashes, which in this light look silvery purple, like beet purée mixed with lead filings. I remain seated and have to peer over the edge of my pew to hear what Stehlik is saying. To the first man he whispers something very somber and, I think, personal. Then I catch it:

“Remember that you are stardust and to stardust you will return.”

“I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm. I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band. I’m going to camp out on the land. I’m gonna try and get my soul free.”

“Remember that you are stardust and to stardust you will return.”

“We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

“Remember that you are stardust and to stardust you will return.”

The woman in the rainbow shawl beckons me to come forward. I shake my head and try not to look disagreeable. The old Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that “One of the most remarkable effects of sacramentals,” like the blessing and imposition of ashes, “is the virtue to drive away evil spirits whose mysterious and baleful operations affect sometimes the physical activity of man.” What does glitter-plus-ashes drive away? Despair? Lack of “commitment”? Does it invite anything?

After everyone else has received, including Stehlik and Ashley, who administer the glitter-plus-ashes to one another last of all, we sing another verse of “What Wondrous Love Is This” and read what the pamphlet describes as another “prayer,” one with lines like “An ending and a beginning: out of the eruption of a supernova, all planets and Earth were planted” and “The end of division and prejudice and a beginning to community and traveling together.”

Finally it is time for the “Bless”:

“A stellar pathway to new life.”

“We follow stardust cross.”

“A journey of the end and new hope.”

“We follow stardust cross.”

“Travel through death to resurrection.”

“We follow stardust cross.”

“The life of blessing, the way of truth, in the love that renews, rebirths, recreates.”

“We follow stardust cross.”

This is the closest we come to hearing the name of Christ.

Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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