So last night at Highland we observed Ash Wednesday, it’s my second time to participate in something like this, and my second time to speak at something like this. One day I look forward to going and getting to hear someone else do it. But I love doing things like this. It’s no secret that the younger generations appreciate more and more the ancient aspects of our faith, but it was a joy to watch people from all generations participate in this ancient tradition. And so, in that spirit, I’d like to post some of the thoughts from last night.
Now I know for some of the readers of this blog, Ash Wednesday may sound a bit too Catholic. And I totally get that, growing up, I was under the impression that all things Catholic were suspect. My parents wouldn’t even let me be friends with girls named Mary.
But Ash Wednesday is different, because it was going on a long time before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It is profoundly ancient and biblical. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed every year, for thousands of years, just like the people in the Bible like Job or the King of Ninevah. We put ashes on, and mourn. We mourn our brokenness and the brokenness of the world. We remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return.
And there’s a reason why we need cadences like this in our lives.
God knows us, he knows that we can try to trick ourselves into believing that death isn’t going to happen to us.The world doesn’t know how to respond to our mortality. And the symbol of ashes is a powerful reminder of our weakness, morally and physically. We are broken creatures. And the ash reminds us of what we tend to forget. That we live under the shadow of death, the grave will not be denied.
We don’t know what to death, The Cosmetic Plastic Surgery industry will make somewhere around 18 billion dollars this year. Think about that number…We have made an industry out of pretending that we don’t age, that people don’t die. So we get a tuck here or a lift there, and underneath all of it is this inability to talk honestly about the way things are. About the way we are.
So Lamentations is this short book in the Bible that you’ve probably never heard a sermon from. It’s a series of 5 poems, written by extremely broken people. The Israelites have just been taken into Babylonian captivity and they are miserable. God never speaks in Lamintations. There’s no Jesus bow at the end of it resolving everything. And it all feels quite bleak. It’s the country music of the Old Testament.
But for some reason, it’s in our Bibles.
One scholar, a woman named Kathleen O’Conner says:
Lamentations names what is wrong. What is out of order in God’s world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential. These acts of lament expose these conditions, name them, open them to grief and anger and make them visible for remedy.
The point of the grief of Lamentations, and really all Christian grief, is not to grieve like those without hope, but to open up our brokenness in order to shine light into it.
One of my favorite parts of last night was Jack and Jill Maxwell, artists and members at Highland (the same people who created Jacob’s Dream at ACU) painted behind me during the service. (pictured above). They painted a Job-like character in charcoal with just their hands. It was dark and beautiful. When we had talked a while ago about this service, they were excited about the idea, and the possibilities about the connection of art and the brokenness of the world. And they began to make some fascinating observations.
Did you know that the color black is actually not really a color, but a mixture of colors? It is all pigmented colors mixed together. Black is what happens when light actually fails to reach the human eye. And, they went on to explain, most artists don’t like to use black from a tube, or pre-mixed, they like to mix the colors themselves. As if each artist brings a different perspective or take. Each black is different.
What’s interesting about our lives, is that each of us is broken in different ways and places, we have each suffered and mourned in ways that are unique to us. The splinter in each of our souls are a bit different. But when we open up about our experiences we find that they don’t isolate us, but draw us to one another. And we also find that God does something beautiful and redemptive in all of that.
Now without the color black, you can paint for a while. But before long, your art begins to become detached from reality. Without black we would never have been given Picasso, or Van Gogh, and Heath Ledger would have never played the Joker.
The New Yorker, a week after the attacks of 9-11, came out with their first post-terrorism magazine. It was a picture of the now missing twin towers. And the whole thing was pitch black. Because you can’t paint that in pastels.
The world is broken and to pretend it’s not isn’t making anyone better. It’s actually making things worse. This is why so many people leave church after High school. They find out that the world is harder than they thought, and since the Christian story didn’t talk about it much, they just write it off altogether.
But in Lamentations we find out that this is normal.
This is par for the course.
Life is sometimes hard, but even in that God is present. I would argue, especially in that God is present.But Jesus entered the world the way it was, and slowly gave us a reason to hope by standing with us while we suffer.
And so Lent Starts with Ash Wednesday, and ends with the worst day that the world has ever seen. We call it Friday, and we call it good.
And it is God painting in Black.