The tradition of Lent means many different things to many different people. I honour the traditions and wisdom of the ages—and I’m interested in discerning what these practices mean [today].
At [my church], Lent is about learning from Jesus, particularly Jesus’ path through the real-life wilderness experiences we all face. We are interested in emulating and discovering a Jesus-shaped life in the hard things, the growing things, and the uncomfortable things. We believe not in an idealized plane of existence no one can quite attain; instead we believe in knowing and living out a Jesus way in the grey areas, the dirt and dust of our earthly lives here and now. . . .
Together and for you, this is our prayer (by Ann Siddall): “May this Lenten journey, with its stories about the hard places of Jesus’ experience, give strength and courage to all whose journey is far from easy. And may it inspire us to risk Christ’s Way of love as we share the journey with other travelers. We make this prayer in his name. Amen.”
>> “Ash Wednesday and the Practice of Truth-Telling” by Christine Valters Paintner: In this introduction to the season of Lent, spiritual writer and retreat leader Christine Valters Paintner discusses lament as a Lenten practice—lament as truth-telling, resistance, solidarity, and the release of God’s power. We need to touch those places of grief that we carry, and open ourselves in compassion to the grief of others. Paintner also unpacks the word “repentance,” visiting its Hebrew and Greek root words to further illuminate its meaning.
>> “Forty for 40: A Literary Reader for Lent” by Nick Ripatrazone:Nick Ripatrazone, the culture editor for Image journal and columnist at The Millions, offers suggestions and blurbs for forty stories, poems, essays, and books appropriate for Lent. Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. From Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Hemingway’s one-act play Today Is Friday to Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters and Karr’s “Disgraceland,” the selections are varied and intriguing. The dates are off because this was published in 2017, but the list is still valid, and many of the poems can be read online.
LIVING ROOMEVENT: “Poetry of Lent”: On March 4, under the aegis of the local arts nonprofit the Eliot Society, I’m moderating an evening of crowdsourced Lenten poetry at a friend’s home in Crownsville, Maryland. If you’re in the Baltimore-Washington metro area, I’d love to see you there! The themes of this season are so expansive, and I’m looking forward to hearing what people share. Of course, I will have many poems in my back pocket as well. Some words I’ve been thinking of in preparation: pilgrimage; hunger; emptying; grace; greening; solitude; beloved; blood.
>> “Circles” by Tow’rs: Tow’rs, an indie-folk band out of Flagstaff, Arizona, is made up of Gretta and Kyle Miller, drummer Dan Bagle, guitarist Kyle Keller, and cellist Emma Riebe. This song of theirs is about how God lovingly pursues us and clothes our shame.
>> “Parce Domini” by Jacob Obrecht:The Gesualdo Six perform a motet by the Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht (1457/58–1505), which sets a traditional Latin liturgical text based on Joel 2:17, 13.
Parce Domine, parce populo tuo quia pius es et misericors. Exaudi nos in aeternum, Domine.
Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, for Thou art gracious and merciful. Hear us for ever, O Lord.
VISUAL COMMENTARY: “Handling Our Fragility, Seeking a Wise Heart” by Rachel Muers: As part of the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, theologian Rachel Muers has selected and comments on three artworks that resonate with Psalm 90 [previously], a song that combines communal lament with a meditation on wisdom. The psalm ends with the cry “Prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!”—which guided Muer in her curation. She gives us nine-thousand-year-old handprints on an Argentinian cave wall, a hospital drawing by Barbara Hepworth, and a cat’s-cradle sculpture by Mitzi Cunliffe. This mini-exhibition is a great way to enter into and engage with this typically Lenten psalm.
On a related note: For this Lent, the VCS is dipping into its archives to bring you “Lent Stations: Repentance and Forgiveness,” fourteen artworks with commentary (two per week) that relate to the stated theme. Follow the link to sign up.
Dawn Ng is a Singaporean multidisciplinary artist whose practice deals with time, memory, and the ephemeral. For her recent body of work Into Air, Ng has crafted nearly 150 large sculptural blocks of frozen pigment and documented their dissolution in the form of photographs, film, and residue paintings. A poetic visual meditation on time and its passing, Into Air captures the metamorphosis of colored ice from solid to liquid to air, physicalizing transience. Presented by Sullivan+Strumpf, it premiered at a derelict ship factory in Singapore in January 2021 and from there traveled to Seoul, London, and Sydney. See the six-minute documentary below for more on the process and meaning behind the work.
Ng started working on Into Air in 2018, and it’s ongoing. The project encompasses three distinct series:
Time Lost Falling in Love
Clocks is the name Ng gives to the photo portraits of her colored glacier blocks at various stages of disintegration. Weighing about 132 pounds each, the blocks were constructed from acrylic paints, dyes, and inks that she froze together in her studio. After removing each block from the freezer, she and her team photographed it from ten different angles every four hours until it entirely eroded. “Like kaleidoscopic lodestones, the portraits visualize the shape, colour and texture that time inhabits in an ephemeral form,” Ng writes.
Time Lost Falling in Love is the collective title of the time-lapse videos Ng filmed of the thawing blocks. The collapse of each block into a puddle of liquid took fifteen to twenty hours, a process compressed into twenty to thirty minutes for each film. Ng says she wants to portray the fluidity of time—time as a “riot of colors” that swell and ebb, that form rivers and pools. By speeding up the frame rate of the film, Ng manipulates time, fast-tracking the dissolution of the blocks while simultaneously providing a calming evocation of a waterfall in slow motion. Time melting on. Here’s Avalanche II:
The third and final component of the Into Air project is Ash, a series of paintings created by blanketing the liquid remains of each melted pigment block with a large sheet of canvas-like paper. Ng leaves the paper there for weeks until all the liquid evaporates through it, creating marbled textures and thick buildups that she then peels away. Ng describes Ash as her attempt to “sieve time.”
Many of the photographs and residue paintings take their titles from song lyrics—by the Beatles, Genesis, the White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, and others.
There is an inescapable relationship between beauty and death. Death gives meaning to all of time. I don’t necessarily see death as something tragic, sad or final. It is that structure that gives true worth and true value to what comes before it. In Asia, especially as a Chinese Asian, we don’t like to talk about death. We feel it is bad luck. But in the paintings, I see death as something beautiful. Even in that last transition to nothingness, the pigments explode. They have a way of clinging on, they try to form tributaries, they flood a space. There is something very beautiful about that last gasp. It is not meek. It can be as strong as fireworks.
I would actually not use the word “nothingness” to describe the blocks’ final state. There’s definitely a “somethingness” still there after the melt! Behold the Ash paintings, which have a glory of their own. Although death is an end of sorts, it’s also a passing from this to that. Ng acknowledges as much. She even describes how “the melted pigments receive a form of resurrection through their incarnation as painterly formulae” in the Ash series. Resurrection!
From July 7 to 23, 2022, Into Air was exhibited, under the curation of Jenn Ellis, at St Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, a historic church in London’s Marylebone district. The midcentury pews, pulpit, and altar inside the Gothic revival interior inspired Ng to design, in collaboration with EBBA architects, new wooden box structures to house the works, some of which stand vertically, and others which lay parallel to the floor.
By displaying these works inside a sacred space, their spiritual implications become even more pronounced.
And not only are we finite; so is the present order of things. Even heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus says (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; cf. Heb. 1:10–12). But, crucially, God and God’s word stand forever (Isa. 40:8; Matt. 7:24–27). True stability and unchangingness can be found only in God, Christians believe. God is a Rock that does not crumble, a strong foundation on which to stand, in life and in death.
The brevity of life may sound like a fearsome reality, but actually, it can serve to make our moments here on earth more precious and purposeful. Because our lives are but a short span, we must make the most of them while we can. Christians believe that everyone will one day have to give an account of what we did with the time God gifted to us. Did we share it freely with others, or keep it all for ourselves? Did we use it to cultivate virtue or to pursue vice?
The exhibition at St Cyprian’s also involved the premiere of a site-specific choral work by the London-based Welsh composer Alex Mills. A direct response to Ng’s art, his composition is also called Into Air and lasts about twenty-five minutes, the length of Ng’s Waterfall VII.
“In the piece,” Mills writes,
five singers undergo a musical meditation where each moves through the music to the rhythm of their own breaths, one bar of music for every exhale. Musical structures slowly build and disintegrate, evolve and transform, melt and evaporate. Textures, harmonies and colours – some delicate, others more pronounced – appear, disappear and re-emerge. Combing different singers’ breathing patterns gives the piece an indeterminate quality: the piece will never be the same twice and may even be radically different from one performance to the next. As such, the piece is not a fixed musical object that can be ‘performed’. Instead, it is a transient, ephemeral and elusive moment in time to be experienced.
The first singer stands at a kneeler. The second, at a pulpit. They establish the solemn mood. Two male singers sing from the organ loft, and another stands behind the rood screen with his arms crossed over his chest, as if in prayer. Haunting and mesmerizing, the five voices reflect off the stone architecture and meld together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in dissonance.
To everything there is a season. Starting at around 10:35, Mills incorporates keywords from Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, a biblical passage made especially famous by the Byrds: “gather,” “scatter,” “heal,” “kill,” “dance,” “mourn.” The author of Ecclesiastes is describing the tide of events that make up a life.
Periodically throughout the performance, a metal singing bowl resounds—a tool commonly used to deepen meditation. It is struck alternately by Ng and Mills, who are seated cross-legged at the front side of the church.
Mills’s Into Air received a second performance just last week on February 8 at the launch of Music & Being, an initiative he founded with Jess Dandy. Music & Being is an open laboratory space in London exploring the intersection of art, music, psychology, spirituality, ecology, and movement.
As we near Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, Ng’s and Mills’s works remind us of how time slips and slides and ultimately ceases, at least time as we know it. What will we do with our fleeting lives? As they dissipate, what will remain? When our breath stops, will a resonance linger?
Lent begins on Wednesday, February 22. I won’t be doing daily Lenten posts like I did last year, though I will be sharing seasonal content once or twice a week. If you want a set of new daily art-driven devotions that are freely accessible online, I’d encourage you to follow The Lent Project, run by the Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts at Biola University; each day features a scripture passage, a poem, a visual artwork, a piece of music, and a written reflection. I’d also direct you to my Lent Playlist (new additions at bottom) and Holy Week Playlist on Spotify.
Another spiritual formation resource for Lent is the following series of Arts & Faith videos from Loyola Press, made in 2014–16. Each video features a three-minute commentary by Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome on a historical artwork, chosen based on one of that day’s/week’s scripture readings from the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary, which is currently in year A. Zsupan-Jerome is the director of ministry formation and field education at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. Here she has crafted a “visual prayer experience” inspired by the Ignatian imagination. In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), encourages Christians to apply the senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste to our reading of and meditation on the New Testament, imagining ourselves as present in the Gospel scenes.
Go to the “Arts & Faith: Lent” homepage, or see below, where the link on each artwork title will take you to a new tab where the corresponding video commentary is hosted on the Loyola website. I’ve included sample embeds of a few of the videos below.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands— O prosper the work of our hands!
God’s eternity and human frailty. These are the central themes of Psalm 90, commonly read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today many Christians will be receiving the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads—a symbol of death and repentance. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel,” the pastor pronounces as he or she smears the ash (made from burnt palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday) on young and old alike.
For a Protestant defense of Ash Wednesday, see “To Ash or Not to Ash” by the Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy. He explores the biblical symbolism of the ritual, its history, and its importance for Christian formation.
LOOK: We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief by Meena Matocha
Austin-based artist Meena Matocha uses charcoal, ashes, soil, and wax to create figurative paintings that explore the tensions between joy and grief, life and death, and the eternal and temporal. The title of this featured painting of hers comes from the poem “We Shake with Joy” by Mary Oliver, reproduced here in full:
We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body. [source]
The exhibition Meena Matocha: Into the Bright Sadness opens this Friday, March 4, at Christ Church of Austin with a reception and gallery talk and will run through April 15. “Bright sadness” is how the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, in his influential book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (1969), translates the concept of charmolypê that John Climacus develops in his Ladder of Divine Ascent in relation to “holy compunction.” “Bright sadness . . . is the true message and gift of Lent,” Schmemann writes. “The sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.” Alternative translations of this compound noun that permeates the Lenten season are “bitter joy,” “joyful mourning,” “joy-making mourning,” or, as Archimandrite Lazarus Moore has it, “blessed joy-grief.”
In their mood and materiality, Matocha’s paintings capture well the themes of Ash Wednesday and the season it inaugurates. Follow her on Instagram @meenamatochaart and on Facebook.
LISTEN: “From the Dust” by Paul Zach and Kate Bluett, 2021 | Released as a single February 25, 2022
From the dust we came To the dust we shall return God everlasting, age unto age the same We are a moment, then like a breath we fade
From the dust we came To the dust we shall return God everlasting, we are cut down as grass Seeds in the morning, and by the night we pass
O Lord, have mercy O Lord, have mercy O Lord, have mercy
Based on Genesis 3:19 and Psalm 90:2–6, “From the Dust” is a sober acknowledgment of the mortality that unites us all, and a plea that God would be merciful to us, forgiving our foolish ways and setting us back on the path of wisdom.
LOOK: Bradford Johnson, Untitled, 1987. Mixed media, 12 × 28 × 3 in. This image is featured in the essay “Wreckage and Rescue: The Art of Bradford Johnson” by Joel Sheesley in Image no. 25 (Spring 2000).
“Child of Dust” is the final song of a four-EP cycle structured on the four basic elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. It’s written as a sonnet in the voice of Earth.
Dear prodigal, you are my son and I Supplied you not your spirit but your shape, All Eden’s wealth arrayed before your eyes. I fathomed not you wanted to escape.
And though I only ever gave you love, Like every child you’ve chosen to rebel, Uprooted flowers and filled the holes with blood. Ask not for whom they toll, the solemn bells.
O child of dust, to Mother now return, For every seed must die before it grows. And though above the world may toil and turn, No prying spades will find you here below.
Now safe beneath their wisdom and their feet, Here I will teach you truly how to sleep.
The earth personified laments how humanity has not reciprocated the care she gives. We’re made of her (Gen. 2:7) and are invited to enjoy her beauty, and yet we abuse and destroy her and each other.
The second stanza alludes to Cain’s murdering Abel. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” God tells Cain in Genesis 3:10. Line 8 is a reference to John Donne’s “Meditation 17” from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which uses a metaphor of land erosion to express humanity’s interconnectedness:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
In other words, when one person dies, a part of the whole of humanity is severed, and in that sense any time a funeral bell rings, we ought all to mourn the loss of a piece of ourselves.
Line 10, in the third stanza, references Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus was talking about his own literal death and resurrection, but the principle applies to our dying to sinful desires, an act that enables new life to spring up in us (see, e.g., Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20, 5:24; Col. 3:2–5; 1 Pet. 2:24).
Kensrue’s lyrics have Mother Earth asking her prodigal children to return to her. As they sing the final couplet, the band puts the microphone in a wooden box (a “coffin”) and shovels dirt on top of it, creating a muffled sound effect. The last sixty seconds of the track are near silence, just the faint clinking of shovels into dirt and rocks. It’s as if we, the listener, are being buried.
Lent is a time when, beneath the world’s incessant noise and toil, we sow ourselves; we reground ourselves in God. The song can be interpreted in several ways, but I see it as calling us to die to self so that we might truly live. Dying and rising is a lesson that Earth, with her seasons and agricultural cycles, can teach us. The seed must be buried before it can experience growth.
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near . . .
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
—Joel 2:1, 12–13
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.
I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in His arms; In the arms of my dear Savior, Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.
Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
The singing-songwriting duo Keith and Kristyn Getty [previously], who are married, are from Northern Ireland and split their time between there and Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States. In 2014 they recorded a medley of the (American) shape-note hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” with a traditional Irish reel tune known as MUSICAL PRIEST, blending the musics of their two homes. The song starts out at a slow, weary pace with spare violin accompaniment and then picks up with a brisk guitar and other strings, including a free-ranging fiddle. The dirge gives way to celebration—this is the movement of Lent.
“Come, Ye Sinners” appears in hymnals with slight variations in verses, sometimes with an additional two, but the text above is one of the most commonly used. The anonymous refrain (“I will arise . . .”), which makes an oblique reference to the parable of the prodigal son, was added to Hart’s text sometime in the nineteenth century; it is a “floating lyric” found in Southern hymnals as early as 1811.
Though I most associate the hymn with the tune RESTORATION (sometimes called ARISE), it has been set to several tunes over the years, both traditional and contemporary. These include BEACH SPRING, GREENVILLE (which uses a different refrain), and ones by Todd Agnew and Matthew S. Smith, to name a few.
In his painting Wounded Saint, Brian Kershisnik [previously] shows us a young woman with downcast eyes and a bleeding gash in her right arm. This wound, a metaphor for the pain she carries inside, could be self-inflicted or inflicted by others or both, but either way, her child gently leads her forward toward healing, as two angels support her from behind. “Poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore,” the woman returns to her God, whose light emanates faintly from her head. In his arms, as the hymn says, “there are ten thousand charms”—ten thousand graces, ten thousand traits that fascinate, allure, delight . . . and make whole.
I’ve just published a piece on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) blog to mark Ash Wednesday tomorrow. It’s a short reflection on the interactive installation hash2ash by the Warsaw-based art collective panGenerator, which uses digital technology to turn selfies into a pile of ash. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” as the liturgy goes. Visit https://civa.org/civablog/remember-you-are-dust/ to read more.
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 A, click here.
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.
SONG: “House of Gold” by Hank Williams, 1948 | Performed by the Secret Sisters, 2010
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.
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/.
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.
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.
“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” by Luci Shaw
“Kim, I love you — Danny”
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.
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.
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 in 2009.
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.