-Pastor Melissa Fain-
As I mentioned before, I’m going to explore artistic expression for Lent. Specifically, I want to look at how secular (or non-religious) artists explore the topics of religion in their work.
A few ground rules:
Ash Wednesday: Ash Jesus
About the artist:
Zhang Haun: Born to a farming family in China, Zhang knew poverty and struggle at an early age. He is openly embarrassed by his country's political choices. His first performance piece, titled “Angel” took a baby doll, covered in blood. The baby was then taken apart by Zhang over a white canvas. After it was in pieces, Zhang attempted to put it back together again. The imagery was reminiscent of Tiananmen Square for the Chinese who were watching.
About the art:
One of Zhang’s preferred mediums is used sacred temple incense. He layers it to create sculptures.
In this piece, temple ash is layered to create the image of Jesus and Buddha facing one another. When you first see it, it looks like a showdown of faiths. Buddhism vs Christianity. However, both are posed in peace. It’s not a showdown at all, but an acceptance.
Today marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. If you are curious to know more about Lent and Ash Wednesday, I’ll drop previous posts at the bottom. Here’s how it’s important today:
Ash Wednesday takes place after Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. The fat and yeast is supposed to be literally used up because in High Church traditions followers are supposed to fast for the 40 days leading up to Easter excluding Sundays. On Ash Wednesday, there can be a worship. That’s where the palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday (Also linked at the bottom) are burned to ash. The ash is put on the worshippers forehead in the shape of a cross using holy oil to make it stick.
For today I want to focus on those palms. During Palm Sunday the palm fronds are often put before the altar in a joyous celebration; remembering Jesus entering Jerusalem on the week of his Crucifixion. As an adult, I realize how upside down that celebration truly was. Still, I had many fond memories of being a child bringing in the palm fronds on Palm Sunday.
I was also a child who loved to pick flowers and smash them in my journals. They became fragile memories of a day I played outdoors, or spent time with someone I loved. I had also not left my palm fronds at the church, but took them home, and dried them out. (For those of you imagining a kid attempting to dry out palm fronds, don’t. It never went well, and they were always way too big to keep.) When I realized what they were doing with the fronds, I also realized my fronts were never included. My fronds were taken home, while the others sat in an attic drying out for the year, and then destroyed to ash. When I first understood what happened my much younger self was happy to not include my fronds.
It would only be as an adult that I’d realize Ash Wednesday requires sacrifice. Personal sacrifice. If I wasn’t giving anything to the ash, then it wasn’t my ash to receive.
Which brings me back to Ash Jesus.
When I see him, his hands outstretched, built from the ash of long forgotten prayers, I see Ash Wednesday. Many of us assume Lent is about letting go of something for a bit. Perhaps you planned to say no to cola, or chocolate. Maybe this is the last thing you plan to read before avoiding the internet. That’s all well and good, but not really the point of Lent.
Lent, like Advent, is about preparing for Christ. During Advent, it was a joyous celebration of life. During Lent, it is really about preparing for death.
GONNA STOP YOU RIGHT THERE! EASTER IS ABOUT THE RESURRECTION! IF LENT WAS ABOUT THE RESURRECTION IT WOULD ALL BE CALLED EASTER! DON’T @ ME.
Sorry. We like to paint over Lent with Easter, so I had to kinda yell that one out so it wouldn’t be lost.
Preparing for Christmas is easy because most of it is taking on new things.
Preparing for Lent is a journey of letting go. It’s incredibly difficult and just taking that first step is a journey within itself. It’s the understanding that things that were good and loved at one point, cannot go forward.
You can’t undo the incense that was burned. It was sacred and good when it was burned, but it can no longer be. It must be sacrificed to become something new.
You can’t undo the slow decay of the palms. It was sacred and good when they were used, but they can no longer be. They must be sacrificed to continue on the journey.
And that’s where the Church sits. Not at the story of Advent, but at the beginning of Lent. As the Church clings to the decaying relics of a previous time, we sit in decay ourselves. We press our memories, and refuse to bring them to God in sacrifice. Then, we don’t become a part of the final picture. Ash Christ cannot be ours until we choose to let go of what can no longer be; and become what God intends. We can’t live until we die.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
How does Ash Jesus preach the Word of God to the people of God?
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
In March/April of 2020 I watched as countless people posted:
"This is the Lentiest Lent we have ever Lent."
Then everyone reacted with a laugh emoji and moved on. What else was there to do?
I feel the Christian Calendar exists, in part, to give us a way to authentically react to life.
In an American culture, we've kinda lost the purpose of Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday.
In reality, it was preparing for a fast. It was a no yeast diet, and a no fat or red meat. Therefore, this being the day before fasting, all the yeast and fatty meats were to be used up so it wouldn't go bad. Now it's an excuse to overdo it, whatever each of us have to overdo.
No one sees it as the first step to accepting loss, which is what it really is.
You don't need me to tell you when you are ready for that step.
You don't need to start that process today.
Nor, if you do start that process, does it need to be over and done with by Easter. These things take years.
You might need to spend this time "pretending Lent," and that's fine. Many of us would no longer call March/April 2020 the "Lentiest Lent we have ever Lent," We have gone through a collective loss, that somehow keeps taking. While there were many things about these past two years that were communal, how we process it is personal.
If you are not ready to give up your version of yeast and red meat, that's you working on your own time. It's not for me or anyone else reading this to decide.
No matter what you are planning to do this Lent: May God be with you on your journey.