Lent, Day 1 (Ash Wednesday)

. . . you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

—Genesis 3:19 (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:20)

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!

—Psalm 90

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

Matocha, Meena_We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief
Meena Matocha (American, 1977–), We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief, 2019. Charcoal, ashes, soil, acrylic, and cold wax on panel, 12 × 12 in.

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

Singer-songwriter Paul Zach video-recorded a minimalist demo of this original song last year, and just last Friday he released a fuller version with backing vocals by The Sing Team and a forty-piece orchestral accompaniment. The string arrangement is by Brian Eichelberger. Zach gave me permission to publicly post this Dropbox link, where you can download an audio file of the song, a lead sheet, and the string parts: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/t56w2lyi3hsoerm/AADPnKbPDveZh825uUdBU4JEa?dl=0.

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.

This song appears on the Art & Theology Lent Playlist.

Roundup: “Religious Art” panel, Advent songs, the Christmas tree’s praise, BBC Nativity film

PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.

Quash opens by proposing different categories of “religious art”: art for religion, art about religion, art with religion, and art instead of religion. The three unpack those a bit, discussing the intentions of the artist or patron versus how the artwork is perceived by the viewer. Quash mentions Haruspex by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (a fascinating installation commissioned by the Vatican for the 2015 Venice Biennale, a contemporary artist’s response to “In the beginning . . . the word became flesh”; read Quash’s essay and an artist interview), the East Window at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Shirazeh Houshiary, the Raphael Cartoons, and Aaron Rosen’s 2016 Stations of the Cross exhibition throughout the city of London, which shows the permeability of the boundaries between sacred and secular. (I participated, as viewer/pilgrim, in a 2019 iteration of the Stations project in Amsterdam.)

Hadzi-Vasileva, Elpida_Haruspex
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (Macedonian, 1971–), Haruspex, 2015. Organic materials. Installation at the Pavilion of the Holy See at the 56th Venice Biennale.

In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:

Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.

Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!

+++

ADVENT SONGS:

“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.

“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe: Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).

+++

ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”

+++

FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.

Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.

I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.

The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.