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.
I just finished proofreading a book on yoga, and one of its chapters in particular is going to stick with me through Lent: “Practice Dying.” In it the author, Michael Stone, discusses the significance of savasana (pronounced sha-VA-sa-na), literally “corpse pose,” which involves lying face-up on the ground, arms at your side, palms up, in a state of attentive relaxation. It is the final pose of every yoga session—and it’s the practice of death, of letting go.
In corpse pose, the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.
Savasana is a restorative pose, meant to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. It’s widely considered the most important pose in yoga and also the most difficult. It’s deceptively hard to slow down and be still! And still more, to let the unwanted elements within us die.
This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world will enter a savasana of sorts as they receive an ashen cross on their foreheads, along with the pronouncement that they are dust and will return to dust. Christians, like Buddhists, concede a great impermanence and teach nonattachment to the things of this life, but unlike Buddhists, we are theists who believe that there is One who is permanent, the only ground, the only stability, and that we are to attach ourselves to him at all costs.
In many ways, to observe Lent is to practice dying. We die to self—so that we can rise to new life in Christ. This act involves purging our hearts and lives of those things that only cause clutter, and relaxing into that empty space with God. In asana practice, it is, ironically, savasana, corpse pose, that wakes you up, that rebirths you into the rest of your day, the rest of your life. So, too, is Lent a putting-to-death posture that leads to resurrection.
Some people tend to associate Lent with extra exertion—and it’s true, there are disciplines associated with it (fasting, prayer, almsgiving). But what if Lent were reconceived as a time of “attentive relaxation”? Of meeting with the Breath (the Spirit) in stillness, listening and leaning into his promptings? Indeed, fasting and prayer are intended to open up that meeting space, and giving money and food to the poor is no burden to those who have relinquished their grasp on material possessions.
Like savasana, the “corpse pose” of Lent is both simple and difficult. Lying down and letting go. It can be painful to put to death those habits and things that have been keeping us from God, as can the sacrifice required to reach out to others in their need. But the life that awaits us when we die to self makes the choice obvious, and God’s very Spirit is active on our behalf.
Michelle Kingdom’s embroidery Preparing for Flight visualizes, for me, this idea of Lent as savasana. (That is, my theistic reinterpretation of it.) As the figure relaxes into the Ground of Being, she is made ready to soar.
Lent is about renewal, a coming to life that can happen only when we lie down and die (see, e.g., Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat). In the stillness, in the dust, in the cessation of striving, is where God meets us and raises us up, as Rami M. Shapiro suggests in his poem “Renewal”:
Imagine not that life is all doing.
Stillness, too, is life;
And in that stillness
The mind cluttered with busyness quiets,
The heart reaching to win rests,
And we hear the whispered truths of God.
May your Lent be a time of blessed stillness that restores you to the abundant life of God.
The soundtrack for this post, embedded above, is “Death” by the Coptic Australian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s poem of the same name. “. . . [L]ike seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. / Trust the dreams . . .”
ESSAY: “Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement” by Victoria Emily Jones (that’s me): Japanese American artist, author, and lecturer Makoto Fujimura has been at the forefront of the “culture care” movement for the past decade, whose aim is to love and to nourish culture rather than to war against it. This essay is an introduction to Mako’s teachings on the subject, as well as to a few of his major painting projects. He’s such a refreshing voice for evangelicalism, witnessing to the goodness of God’s creation and cogently articulating the Christian calling to be stewards of that goodness. YouTube and Vimeo are chock-full of Mako interviews, lectures, panel discussions, and short films. Here’s just one, to give you a taste of the work he’s doing—in it he describes some of the themes in his book Silence and Beauty, including the experience of personal “ground zeroes.”
I saw some of Mako’s paintings in person last year at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. It was a quiet day in the gallery, so I had the privilege of being alone with them—those finely pulverized precious minerals and flecks of gold dancing abstractly across the canvases. Photographs really cannot do the works justice, but regardless, here’s a detail shot I took of In the Beginning, which Mako painted as a frontispiece to the Gospel of John for the Four Holy Gospels project commissioned by Crossway.
TOP TEN MOVIES: “Favorite Films of 2018: The Top Ten” by Jeffrey Overstreet: The Oscars are tonight, and lots of writers have already published their “top 10” lists in anticipation. One film critic, a Christian, whom I really respect is Jeffrey Overstreet (previously)—I love the way he talks about film. He started writing movie reviews in the nineties after realizing how most reviews by Christians were simply long lists of ways in which the movie might offend us. He wanted to go deeper.
“When we focus on the dangers of moviegoing, it can distract us from the purpose and the strengths of storytelling, and from the fact that we are encountering someone else’s perspective on the world,” he said in a 2007 interview. “If we treated people the way we treated movies in the past, we would shy away from them because of some particular aspect of their lifestyle or personality. I think engagement is a much healthier approach. We should avoid imitating bad behavior, but we should be open to engaging with, listening to, and understanding our neighbors through their art.”
I’ve seen only three of his top ten recommendations for 2018 but am adding a few of the others to my watchlist. His number ten, Private Life, was a favorite of mine too, certainly one of the most memorable, most wrenching movies I watched all year. It’s on Netflix.
For another “top 10” list, see the one compiled by the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury, a body of film critics and cinephiles seeking “to enlarge or expand the perception of what is meant by either labelling a film a ‘Christian’ film or suggesting that it should be of interest to Christian audiences.”
NEW BOOK:Were You There? Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals by Luke A. Powery: “Valuable not only for their sublime musical expression, the African American spirituals provide profound insights into the human condition and Christian life. Many spirituals focus on the climax of the Christian drama, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the ways in which those events bring about the liberation of God’s people. In these devotions for the season of Lent, Luke A. Powery leads the reader through the spirituals as they confront the mystery of Christ’s atoning death and victory over the grave. Each selection includes the lyrics of the spiritual, a reflection by the author on the spiritual’s meaning, a Scripture verse related to that meaning, and a brief prayer.”
Published last month, this book is a follow-up to Powery’s popular Rise Up, Shepherd! Advent Reflections on the Spirituals (2017). I’m a big proponent of liturgically themed devotionals that utilize the arts as a resource (for others for Lent, see last year’s roundup), so this title stood out to me when I saw it in a magazine ad. Using Spotify or some other music-streaming service as a companion while going through the book is, I’d imagine, a must, as the power of the spirituals lies largely in their expressive vocal deliveries.
NEW ALBUM: Lent by Liturgical Folk(previously here and here): Liturgical Folk’s fourth album is now out! Featuring the vocals of Lauren Plank Goans (of Lowland Hum), Liz Vice, Josh Garrels, and Ryan Flanigan, Lent comprises ten original songs that extend from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday and that are inspired by the Book of Common Prayer. As always, the songs are lyrically rich and musically interesting, and I appreciate the inclusion of guest vocalists this time around, as each voice brings a unique quality. You can purchase the album on Bandcamp; devotional e-book and lead sheets are sold separately. You’ll also want to check out the group’s upcoming tour dates in the western US.
On Wednesday I posted a song about delighting in the Lord by Luke Morton; here’s one on the same theme, but with a decidedly Lenten tone, conceding human weakness:
NEW MEDLEY:“Smile / I Smile” by Sara Niemietz and W. G. Snuffy Walden: This medley combines new arrangements of Charlie Chaplin’s melancholic pop standard “Smile” with the upbeat modern gospel song “I Smile” by Kirk Franklin. The former is an absolutely beautiful melody, which Chaplin composed for the final sequence of his 1936 semi-talkie Modern Times (one of my favorite films ever). The two main characters—the “tramp” (Chaplin) and the “gamin” (Paulette Goddard), a homeless couple—walk down a dusty road together into a sunrise. The whole movie they’ve been scraping and scrounging to get by, having endured unemployment, hunger, a mental breakdown, prison, family separation, and police harassment. Goddard’s character is ready to throw in the towel, but Chaplin encourages her to keep on going, that they’ll make it through.
In 1954 John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics to Chaplin’s melody based on lines and themes from the film, creating the song that we all know today. While I could quibble with the admonishment to “hide every trace of sadness” and the like, as if we must push down the very real pain that we feel, I recognize that ultimately, the song is about hope, about pushing through darkness into the light.
By pairing this song with Franklin’s “I Smile” (2011), Niemietz locates that hope in God, who showers us with “Holy Ghost power.” The speaker acknowledges that “it’s so hard to look up when you’ve been down,” and asks God where is the love and joy he promised? It’s dark in my heart, he laments, no blue skies in sight, but regardless, he smiles, because “I know God is working.” This sentiment echoes Paul’s call to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16) and to be content in all circumstances (Phil. 4:11). I’d say that even if we can’t muster a literal smile when life hurts, it’s OK; what’s more important is that we develop an inner bending toward joy, a heart-smile, which trusts that God holds us in his love and carries us in his power.
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.
Next Wednesday, February 14, is the first day of Lent—a season of focused prayer and simple living. During this time I will continue publishing weekly “Artful Devotion” posts based on scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, plus I have a few other posts planned. I’m especially excited about what I’ll be publishing this Sunday—the fruits of many months of labor; I hope you’ll check back!
“The Lent Project V” by Biola University: From Ash Wednesday through the first week of Easter, Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts will be publishing daily “aesthetic meditations” on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The scripture texts, art images, music, and poetry are curated by a CCCA team, and staff are invited to contribute written reflections that respond to them. “The mood of Lent can be beautifully captured through the arts, which are often cathartic expressions of longing, suffering, loneliness, love, death and rebirth,” says university president Barry H. Corey. “Art is a great chronicler both of the drama of human history and the aches of the human heart.” Here are some artworks Biola has featured in previous years; click on each to experience the full devotion:
Lenten Readings 2018 by Kevin Greene: For the seventh year in a row, Kevin Greene, a teaching elder at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, is publishing short daily devotions, each one containing an art image and a piece of music. (Last year I learned of lots of new artists through him!) For the prayer component he has used various resources in the past—the Revised Common Lectionary, sermons on the cross of Christ across the centuries, Wesley’s Scripture Hymns, and excerpts from the early church fathers—but this year he will be using collects (pronounced COL-lects) from the Book of Common Prayer. Unfamiliar with the term? Click here to read how a collect works. Continue reading “Lent devotionals with arts component”→
Still wet behind the ears, he’s Spirit-pushed
up Jordan’s banks into the wilderness.
Angels hover praying ’round his head.
Animals couch against his knees and ankles
intuiting a better master. The Man
in the middle—new Adam in old Eden—
is up against it, matched with the ancient
Adversary. For forty days and nights
he tests the baptismal blessing and proves to his dismay
the Man is made of sterner stuff than Adam:
the Man will choose to be the Son God made him.
Mark dedicates a spare two verses to this initiatory event in the life of Christ: the forty days of temptation he endured immediately following his baptism: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:12–13, ESV; cf. Matthew 4:1–11, Luke 4:1–13).
I’m intrigued by Mark’s use of the word driven (ekballō) to describe the manner in which the Spirit imparts motion to Christ. Whereas Matthew and Luke use the gentler led (anagō), Mark implies something more forceful: ejected, cast forth, hurled. In his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, Eugene H. Peterson uses push: “At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (emphasis mine).
So the same Spirit who had just alighted on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, presiding over God’s pronouncement that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), now pushes Jesus into the Judean desert, away from civilization. Why? So that in the quiet, he could get to better know himself and God, to better discern the task to which he had been called. This process necessarily involved doing battle with the prospects of other paths, other identities.
“Turn these stones into bread.” “Jump; let’s see if God saves you.” “Worship me; I’ll give you the kingdom of earth.”
Satan tries to draw Jesus from a messiahship of self-sacrifice to a messiahship of power. Performing miracles for his own self-benefit, to avoid any discomfort or pain in life; performing miracles for show, like a magician, to impress the masses; becoming an earthly king, with political control and dominion—these are all temptations Jesus would face again. Here he has the opportunity to confront them head-on in preparation for his imminent ministry to the Israelites. Over this period of forty days, Jesus solidifies his mission, rejecting the vision of himself and his life that Satan lays out for him. Instead of gratification, pride, and riches, Jesus chooses purity, humility, and poverty. Continue reading “Voices in the desert—whose blessing will we heed?”→
As you may have noticed, I’ve had to ease up lately on my self-imposed one-post-a-week rule to accommodate other projects. For February and March, I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church called “Art and the Church: Seeing the Sacred in Global Christian Art”; I have a really great group of people exploring the topic with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing which images they respond to most. I’ve also been invited by three separate entities to produce content on their platforms this spring: by a missions organization, to curate an online gallery of Passion art; by a divinity school, to write a post for its blog; and by a Christian ministry at Brown University, to deliver a talk to undergraduates. Moreover, I just returned from a trip to California, where I attended a Biola University–sponsored art symposium called “Art in a Postsecular Age”; I got to meet Matthew Milliner and Jonathan Anderson and hear from a panel of other distinguished speakers.
So, while I had every intention of getting this list out last week to coincide with the start of Lent, slide preparations, permissions e-mails, and travels have claimed my focus. I regret that all this revving up has come during a season dedicated to slowing down. Please forgive the slackness, but I’ve decided to practice the “holy pause” for the next forty days (through Easter Sunday). To fast from my obsession with productivity. I will still honor my obligation to those who have commissioned me for specific tasks, but I will be lightening up on the frequency of blog posts. In lieu of Lent-related Art & Theology content, I lift up the following supports for your journey.
Online devotional with visual art and music: Each Lenten season since 2012, Kevin Greene, an associate pastor at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, has published an online devotional that comprises for each day an art image, a short scripture reading, a prayer, and a music file. I absolutely love this model, with its spare style: because the entries are light on text, they invite silence, contemplation, seeing, listening. Greene’s image selection is stellar. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices but rather aims at something more atmospheric, more slant. Among the painted subjects, for example, you’ll find a stairway, a storm, a dancer, a reaper; day 1, Ash Wednesday, was a sailboat on troubled waters (pictured below). Fine-art viewing isn’t something that’s typically a part of Protestant devotional practice, so in response to questions he’s received, Greene has described how art operates on the imagination and the spirit. I’ve been greatly blessed moving through the first week of Lent with this companion, and I can’t wait to dive into the backlist entries later on. You can sign up via e-mail in the left sidebar, or simply bookmark the website and visit it each morning.
Lent Photo Challenge: The UK-based Bible Society invites people to take one photo per day throughout the season based on rotating themes (e.g., wilderness, hospitality, ask), then share them on social media using the hashtag #LentChallenge. Today is the sixth day of Lent (Sundays are excluded from the traditional forty-day count), and the assigned theme is “fear.”
Essays, short stories, poems, art: Founded in 1989, Image journal seeks “to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture.” This Lent they’ve curated a selection of literary essays, short stories, poems, and art images from their back issues and their blog, Good Letters, that relate to the season, as well as to Easter. I especially enjoyed “Jeffrey Mongrain: An Iconography of Eloquence.” A few selections might be accessible only to subscribers (you can subscribe here; you won’t be disappointed!). Also available: the book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, a full-color devotional with contributions by some of Image’s favorites. Lent is not about becoming lost in our brokenness, the description says, but about cleansing the palate so that we can taste life more fully.
“Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again: Finding healing in repetition, community, and art” by W. David O. Taylor: An excellent introduction to Lent, addressing unselfing, dying a good death, opening up vacant space, and praying with the eyes. This Christianity Today article is adapted from the foreword Taylor wrote for artist James B. Janknegt’s new book, Lenten Meditations, which features forty of Janknegt’s paintings on the parables of Jesus, along with written reflections. Artists like Janknegt, Taylor writes, “fix before us an image of a world broken by our own doing, but not abandoned by God. They question our habits of sight. They arrest our attention. See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the ‘film of familiarity’ and the ‘lethargy of custom.’”
Stations of the Cross in Washington, DC: This Lent, Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany have organized a combination pilgrimage and art exhibition, featuring works located throughout Washington, DC, in places both sacred and secular. Mostly contemporary, some newly commissioned, the works include George Segal’s Depression Bread Line, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial by Glenna Goodacre, Barnett Newman’s Stations cycle at the National Gallery of Art, a video installation at First Congregational United Church of Christ by Leni Diner Dothan, and more. Participants can follow the stations by downloading the app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can view the maps and listen to the commentary through a browser by following the primary link above.) Also check out the accompanying devotional guide.
Lent by The Brilliance: This 2012 EP by The Brilliance, a duo comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, has seven tracks: “Dust We Are,”“Now and at the Hour of Our Death” (the rerelease on Brother removes the invocation to Mary), “Dayspring of Life,”“Does Your Heart Break?,” “Holy Communion,” “Violent Loving God,” and “Have You Forsaken Me?” Each one is a beautiful prayer, the words organized around a string quartet. Some take the shape of praise, others lament. God is supplicated for peace, mercy, light. The first track well captures the spirit of Lent: “Be still my soul and let it go, just let it go.” Click here to read a 2015 Hallels interview with The Brilliance, or here to listen to a podcast interview by David Santistevan.
While working at a rehabilitation center for torture survivors in Chicago, Greg Halvorsen Schreck was struck by the profound physical and emotional traumas these individuals had experienced. He thought of Christ, who suffers in solidarity with those who suffer. And he thought that as a fine-art photographer, maybe he could tell the story of this via dolorosa (“way of sorrow”) they were traveling, by linking it to the medieval Christian devotional practice of the fourteen stations of the cross.
The stations of the cross originated in the thirteenth century as a way for Christians to enter more fully into Jesus’s last hours by praying visually, verbally, and bodily with fourteen images that highlight various points along his journey to the cross, from his trial to his entombment. Derived from the scriptural accounts (save for the legendary addition of Veronica’s veil, plus the embellishment of Christ’s three falls), the stations offered a stay-at-home alternative for Christians who couldn’t afford a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: instead of literally walking the road between Antonia fortress and Golgotha, they could walk it metaphorically, in their imaginations, with fourteen way stations to provide particular foci.
The models Schreck used in his multipiece Via Dolorosa—which can be viewed in full here, and in the video below—are not themselves torture survivors. (That would have posed a safety risk.) But “the stories and the general ethos of those in our midst wounded by war, political upheaval, and unspoken violence shaped my approach,” he said.
It was important to him to portray a range of ethnicities—which is why his stations include people not only of European descent but of Latin American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and African descent, including a few of mixed race. The falling Christ is portrayed by a Mexican American veteran of the Iraq War. Simone of Cyrene is portrayed by an Ethiopian woman. Mary Magdalene, with her jar of incense, is portrayed by a woman who is half-Syrian.
Schreck also included his two children, adopted from Guatemala, in the project. His daughter, Magdalena, is cast alongside three of her friends as a daughter of Jerusalem in station 8 (top left). His son, Teo, is featured in stations 2 and 13; in the latter, Schreck himself stands in for Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, a reference to Michelangelo’s self-portrait in his Florence Deposition sculpture, Schreck says.
Songs for Lent is a collaborative album by various Brooklyn-based musicians, released in 2013, that reflects on themes of temptation, suffering, sin, death, grace, and longing.
Except for two originals, all the hymn texts were written between the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries; Bruce Benedict, the chaplain of worship arts at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, curated them for this project, based on their theological richness and their fittingness for Lenten meditation. I applaud his selections, most of which have heretofore been little known and little sung in the church.
The one that’s most familiar is probably “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”—this is the only song on the album whose traditional melody is retained. All the others feature brand-new musical settings by twelve different songwriters; in a few cases, two interpretations of the same text are included. Though I enjoyed every contribution, I especially like the ones by Jason Pipkin: “Remember, Lord, Our Mortal State” and “Away, My Unbelieving Fear,” which he performs with his wife, Kanene Donehey Pipkin.
The collective—they call themselves “New York Hymns”—is graciously providing Songs for Lent for free streaming and download on Bandcamp. (Donations are welcome.) Lead sheets and chord charts can be accessed at www.newyorkhymns.com.
Below is the track list. Because most of the lyrics on the album are excerpts from longer hymns, I’ve included a link to the full set of original lyrics for each one in a parenthetical note.
Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the first day of Lent, a season of concentrated prayer, repentance, and simple living during which the church as a collective prepares herself to experience the resurrection joy that is Easter. Most people associate it with fasting—from food or other distractions; this is not an end in and of itself but is for the purpose of cultivating a greater dependence on God and an openness to his will. As Wendy M. Wright writes in her book The Rising, “The forty days of Lent celebrate the dismembering, disequilibrium, and dying that are preludes to the creative transformation of Eastertide. It is a season of being changed and emptied so that new life might come to birth in us and resurrection be found in us as well” (17).
The designation of a forty-day season leading up to the feast of the resurrection is at least as old as the fourth century, as the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 spoke of the quadragesima paschae (“forty days before Easter”). The calculation of days, however, is not that straightforward, and varies by denomination: Roman Catholics count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (44 days), whereas most Protestants count through Holy Saturday (46 days; excluding Sundays, which are non-fast days, makes 40), and the Orthodox Church uses a different calendar entirely.
Lent is like getting your yearly physical. It’s not that we aren’t to maintain our health throughout the year but that having an “appointment” forces us to come face-to-face with the state of our souls and to really hear the Doctor’s orders. We self-examine, and then we attend to those parts of ourselves that need improvement.
Even though Lent involves pointed reflection on human neediness and the confrontation of sin, it is not meant to be all dark and glum, nor characterized only by emptying. The word “Lent” actually means “springtime”; it’s a time of renewal, growth, filling. Inspired by Jesus’s retreat into the desert to overcome idols and more fully inhabit his baptismal identity, we too retreat into a proverbial desert, saying no to one or more things so that we can say yes to something else. Continue reading “The season of Lent”→