By Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw
This year, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have landed on the same day. When looking at these two events, I have a clear preference for one over the other. Commercials have filled the air over the past month, bombarding straight men with messages about straight women, “Show her you truly love her… buy these diamonds… this car… that pair of shoes…” In general, these ads cause me to roll my eyes. I am very clear that this cultural phenomenon is not about me, not about how I love, or who I am. However, give me some good theology of repentance and sacrifice, now THAT really gets my heart beating.
I have always loved Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. I have often argued that it is the queerest part of the Christian liturgical year. It is a life affirming ritual that honors our mortality. There is something profoundly radical and queer about naming the injustices we live in, the injustices to which we may have contributed, and in our queerness we can bear witness, becoming (theologically) naked before our God. Only then, do we get the chance at a fresh start.
About a decade ago, when I was a clergy intern, I had just left an Ash Wednesday service one evening with a fellow clergy intern. We were walking to the BART station and a young man, who appeared to be homeless, spotted us with ashes on our heads. He stopped us asked if it was Ash Wednesday and told us he hadn’t been to a church service since his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay. He said this with defiance in his voice, anticipating judgement or a lecture from the two clean-cut young men with ashes on our heads.
We responded with kindness and told him that we are gay as well and we are so sorry to hear about the rejection he has experienced. He lamented that he had missed his chance for ashes that year. We assured him that he had not missed his chance. We rubbed the ashes from our foreheads and put them on his, speaking to him the familiar words you are but dust and to dust you shall return. We shared that moment with him. Gave him some money for food. Told him about our church. We never saw him again. But I have carried that memory with me ever since. That was a moment of queer love, of real community, of bonding, and worship among queer men in a chance encounter on a San Francisco street. Of the various fleeting encounters I experienced among queer men in my years of living in the Bay Area, this continues to be one of my favorites.
Ash Wednesday is a queer holiday. In a cultural context where we are taught to fear death and to shun anything that reminds us that we are mortal, this holy day lets us be reminded. We are here for but a moment. And in this brief moment, we aren’t going to do things perfectly. Life is messy. Life is full of flaws and mistakes. But we are wonderfully made and we can find queer moments of enchantment. The opportunity to recommit and to do better, is literally around the corner.