-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?
-Rev Melissa Fain-
18 Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; 19 by the sweat of your face you will eat bread— until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”
Genesis 3:18-19 CEB
It was Ash Wednesday many years ago, and I rather naively asked the Elder, "What are those ashes made of?"
"The palm fronds of last year's Palm Sunday. They're dried out, and burned to ash for Ash Wednesday."
What was mere curiosity turned to horror. I loved Palm Sunday! As I kid, I enjoyed marching into the Sanctuary (ahead of the the choir, by the way!) Now I was staring at the remains of that wonderful experience. Only dust. Burned to nothingness. God was in that event! I felt the Spirit as I sang "Hallelujah!" I knew God's presence was real. Now it felt dismissed and discarded.
Only, I saw it wrong. The ash is a reminder to let go of what God was, to allow us to see how God could be. Don't mistake this as something easy. This isn't some moment of celebration, or understood joy. This is a lament; a funeral dirge. What was, can no longer be. It's not anything that can be brought back. Holding on to those remains will not bring them back. It will only keep what is to come from arriving. So Ash Wednesday we mourn and say good bye. God exists in those moments. God is ash.
Pray with me:
Dear Lord, help me reflect as I mourn. As I fondly remember what once was, let me accept the ash so I may let go. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
There’s a season for everything
and a time for every matter under the heavens.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 CEB
I was standing in the official Thomas Kincaid art gallery in Savannah, Georgia years ago. Lights were placed directly on the canvas, and every painting was the idyllic image. One of the attendants walked up to me staring at a painting, and said, “We light them up like this because they glow.” It was true. Kincaid knew how to make paintings look like light was coming from them. It was amazing how perfectly he captured something that couldn’t really be seen. These were his images of heaven, and his heaven had no dying leaves, no slushy snow, and no darkness. To me, it was also amazing how this man couldn’t see the beauty in the darkness.
When I heard the news that Kincaid had committed suicide my heart wept. We found out he was living with depression. He knew the darkness. He lived within it. If anyone needed to find the beauty beyond the idyllic, it was him. He made his works glow because he could not glow himself.
That’s a sad story, but it’s a story within life. There is a season for everything under heaven and earth. There is a time to be happy, and there is a time to be sad. There is a time for planting, and a time to gather crops. There is a time for war and a time for peace. Our world is cyclical. Our faith is the same. Worship is more than praising and thanking God. Sometimes we are Job on the ash heap crying out in despair. There comes a time when we must face death to find new life.
Ash Wednesday takes the ashes of the previous year, and reminds us that we are to walk with Christ to the cross to find new life. There’s a beauty in that walk as dark as it is. We must explore the shadows of our faith, because the shadows remind us of how bright the light really is.
- - -
Oh God of heaven and earth, walk with us in this time of contemplation. Help us see the beauty in all of creation. Help us as we begin this season.
Rev Melissa Fain is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) She currently serves as the Senior Minister at Fig Tree Christian. Her passion is new church planting and revitalization. Fig Tree is the second big church plant she has been part of. Melissa enjoys all forms of the arts, having a degree in vocal music from Kennesaw State University. She also graduated from Candler School of Theology in the Fall of 2010, and has worked in Christian settings since 1999. Melissa is a mother of two wonderful children, and the wife to a very talented illustrator.
A congregant, about a year ago, expressed a desire to understand different elements of Christianity better. Therefore, throughout Lent, we will be taking a closer look at explaining why many Christians do what they do.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent. (More on Lent tomorrow.) There is a symbol used during this day, it's an ashen cross put on the forehead. The ash symbolically comes from the dried palms of the previous year's Palm Sunday. (Yeah, we will get to that one too.) The palms are burned into an ash, then mixed with holy water, or anointing oil. It's a symbol of our mortality. From the ashes we have come, and to the ashes we will return. Ash Wednesday puts us in the right frame of mind to accept the journey we are about to take to get to Easter.
Those who come regularly might be a bit puzzled. This is Wednesday. Meditations are always posted on Thursday. I know. I know. It might seem a bit off, but today is Ash Wednesday. I just want to write this week to explain it a bit.