Treasure (Artful Devotion)

Crates by Pinturicchio
Crates of Thebes dumps out his wealth into the sea in this detail of the “Mount of Wisdom” marble mosaic inlay and graffito, designed by Pinturicchio in 1505, from the floor of Siena Cathedral in Italy.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

—Matthew 6:19–21

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 6:21 as “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

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SONG: “House of Gold” by Hank Williams, 1948 | Performed by the Secret Sisters, 2010

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In her poem “Storage,” Mary Oliver describes the total emptying of a storage unit she rented for years:

I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.

Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a season for throwing out that which has been weighing us down—whether that be physical possessions, or things of the heart (such as unhealthy attitudes, habits, or dependencies; in a word, sins). It’s a spring cleaning of sorts, where we clear out those accumulations that have subtly edged out God. “Make a beautiful fire!” Oliver exclaims. A bonfire of vanities. Once you relinquish your burdens to the fire, you will be light as a bird, and free to fly.

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Giorgio Vasari described the floor of Siena Cathedral as “the most beautiful . . . , largest and most magnificent . . . ever made.” Read an excellent, beautifully photographed introduction to this allegorical masterwork, unique in terms of its technique and message, at https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/sites/floor/.

Siena Cathedral
View down the nave of Siena Cathedral

Is it a contradiction for the church to have poured much of its wealth into the making of this magnificent floor whose imagery, in part, categorizes earthly wealth as a potential pitfall on the path to Wisdom? No, I don’t think so. Its beauty glorifies Christ, proclaiming him the ultimate Treasure. This is not wealth hoarded away for personal security but wealth poured out before God, for the soul-nourishment of others. The spending of large sums of money on art when poverty persists is and will always remain a tricky conundrum (not least during Lent, when an ethic of simplicity and almsgiving are emphasized), but artist Makoto Fujimura navigates it quite well in his 1996 essay “The Extravagance of God.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Ash Wednesday, cycle C, click here.

“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” by Luci Shaw

This year the lunar calendar has given us a unique confluence of holidays on today’s date: Valentine’s Day, and the first day of Lent. Journalists are really playing up their antithetical nature . . . but maybe the two observances aren’t entirely at odds. After all, Lent is about reconnecting and deepening our intimacy with Love himself.

In the following poem Luci Shaw reflects on how human love, despite bold attestations to the contrary, is often ephemeral, whereas God is a “longer Lover” whose vow to love and to cherish is truly eternal, and is evidenced by daily tokens.

Via dell'Amore, Cinque Terre

“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” by Luci Shaw

“Kim, I love you — Danny”
                  roadside graffito

On overhead and underpass,
beside the road, beyond the grass,

in aerosol or paint or chalk
the stones cry out, the billboards talk.

On rock and wall and bridge and tree,
boldly engraved for all to see,

hearts and initials intertwine
their passionate, short-lived valentine.

I’m listening for a longer Lover
whose declaration lasts forever:

from field and flower, through wind and breath,
in straw and star, by birth and death,

his urgent language of desire
flickers in dew and frost and fire.

This earliest spring that I have seen
shows me that tender love in green,

and on my windshield, clear and plain,
my Dearest signs his name in rain.

“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” is published in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation by Luci Shaw (Eerdmans, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher. Reproduction of the poem without express permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is a violation of copyright.

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Unlike in her other poems, Shaw uses here a simple, singsongy meter (iambic tetrameter) that evokes the standard Valentine’s Day fare. Hinging the poem at stanza five, she spends the first half musing on the myriad ways in which young couples broadcast their love, and the second half recounting, by contrast, God’s declarations through nature, through miracle, through beauty. With a love both passionate and tender, he romances us. A soft wind, a starry night, the green of spring—these are his love letters.

This poem urges us to open ourselves to this divine wooing. While we’re busy longing and searching for some perfect love, we may be missing the tokens of God’s affection lavished on us right now.

Today, these words or something like them will be spoken by pastors all over the world:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Repent and believe the Good News: God longs for you to be whole.

And this scripture read: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is . . . abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).

We can still celebrate romantic love with our partner—which itself can be a gift and a blessing—but with our foreheads marked with ash, we ought to realize that this love is not ultimate. It is a shadow of a greater, fuller love offered to us from on high, by One who spared no expense in proving it, to the point of giving up his own life. “Greater love has no one than this” (John 15:13a).

And this Lover sends us valentines all year round.

So the next time you’re driving down the highway, caught in a rain shower, remember that you are beloved of God, and that he will never stop reaching out to you, beckoning you into a deeper relationship with him.

Via dell'Amore, Cinque Terre

About the photos: In Cinque Terre, Italy, young couples wanting to declare their eternal love write their names on padlocks and attach them to wire mesh and cables along the Via dell’Amore (Lovers’ Lane). I took these photos back in 2009. (No, none of the locks are mine!)

Joyful Lent (Artful Devotion)

Genesis 9:13 by Sawai Chinnawong
Sawai Chinnawong (Thai, 1959–), Genesis 9:13, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 27 × 27 in.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

—Genesis 9:8–17

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MUSIC: Keyboard Sonata in C Major (K. 159, L. 104) by Domenico Scarlatti | Arranged for banjo by Béla Fleck and for mandolin by Edgar Meyer | Performed by Béla Fleck and Chris Thile on Perpetual Motion (2001)

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This art and music may seem inappropriately light and bright for the first Sunday of Lent, a season that’s stereotypically thought of as gloomy and self-deprecating. But the Old Testament reading the Revised Commentary Lectionary assigns to this day is God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood, a passage filled with great hope.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Lent does not mean forty days of beating yourself up. It literally means “springtime,” and it’s a time of renewal in preparation for Easter. Self-examination is a major component, yes, but so is grabbing hold of the divine promise—of God’s wondrous love and mercy.

In my church’s liturgy (and this is common across denominations), the confession of sin is always followed by words of assurance—a verse of scripture, spoken by the pastor, that reminds us of the pardon we receive through Christ. We are not left in the darkness of our failures; we are brought into the light, and given power to live as children of the light. Repentance is a joyous thing! That’s why the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, a Second Vatican Council document, refers to Lent as the “joyful season.” It’s joyful because God’s mercy is amazing.

After forty days on a dark boat, and then some, Noah, his family, and a whole bunch of animals come out to a renewed earth, and to a promise painted across the sky in bright colors that never again will all God’s creation be destroyed. Similarly, during Lent we choose to enter a period of darkness, taking stock of our sin. It can seem like a rocking journey, but it’s really a period of regeneration, and when we arrive at Easter we receive, as confirmation of the new life that’s possible, the resurrected Christ. He’s there for us all along—we need not wait till Lent’s over to enter his forgiveness and to rise with him. But we also don’t want to skip over the necessary steps of first acknowledging the depth of our sin, and confessing it with a contrite heart.

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Excerpt from “The Agreement” by Henry Vaughan, from Silex Scintillans:

But while Time runs, and after it
Eternity, which never ends,
Quite through them both, still infinite,
Thy covenant by Christ extends;
No sins of frailty, nor of youth,
Can foil His merits, and Thy truth.

And this I hourly find, for Thou
Dost still renew, and purge and heal:
Thy care and love, which jointly flow,
New cordials, new cathartics deal.
But were I once cast off by Thee,
I know—my God!—this would not be.

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Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I have a poem planned for publication here at Art & Theology. But I also wrote a short visual meditation for the Anglican Church in North America, which you can find at the bottom of their Lent website, https://giftoflent.org/. It’s on Ted Prescott’s mixed-media artwork All My Sins, which incorporates paper ash, the residue left over from the artist’s burning of a list of his personal sins.

All My Sins by Ted Prescott
Theodore Prescott (American, 1944–), All My Sins, 1996. Cherry, lead, hand-blown glass, paper ash, and silicon, 36.5 × 24.5 × 5 in.

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday of Lent, cycle B, click here.