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.

Teach Us to Number Our Days (Artful Devotion)

Jacques de Gheyn II (Netherlandish, 1565–1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603. Oil on wood, 32 1/2 × 21 1/4 in. (82.6 × 54 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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 return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; 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.

. . .

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

. . .

So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

—Psalm 90:1–6, 10, 12

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MUSIC: Élégie in E-flat Minor, op. 3, no. 1, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1892 | Performed by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, with Isata Kanneh-Mason, 2017

I’ve mentioned these stellar sibling musicians on the blog before, when I shared Sheku’s arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” In fact, all seven Kanneh-Mason siblings, ranging in age from eleven to twenty-four, are musical—and of an exceptionally high standard! Their debut album as a family, Carnival, dropped November 6; it is a collaboration with Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman and children’s author Michael Morpurgo.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason released Rachmaninoff’s Élégie, from Morceaux de fantaisie, as a single in 2017. He has two solo records: Elgar (2020) and Inspiration (2018).

Isata Kanneh-Mason has also recorded as a solo artist: see Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann (2019).

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Vanitas (from the Latin vanus, “empty”) is a subgenre of still life painting, especially common in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, that shows, through symbolism, the brevity of life and the transience of earthly pleasures.

Art historian Ingvar Bergström discusses Vanitas Still Life by Jacques de Gheyn II (Jacob de Gheyn) at length in the 1970 journal article “De Gheyn as a ‘Vanitas’ Painter.” The commentary that follows is derived from that.

In de Gheyn’s painting, a skull sits inside a stone niche on a bed of dry grass, a reminder that “all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth . . .” (Isaiah 40:6–7; cf. 1 Peter 1:24). Sitting on the left side of the ledge, the tulip and the wild rose with the fallen petal symbolize how man “cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” (Job 14:2). The smoking urn on the other side references Psalm 102:3: “my days are consumed like smoke.” Between these two are a spill of Spanish coins and a Dutch military medal, and propped up against the ledge on each side is a gold ten-ducat coin showing, on the obverse, Joanna and Charles as sovereigns of Aragon. The message is that beauty, riches, and worldly power and honors all come to an end.

Lest this message somehow be missed, HUMANA VANA (“human vanity”) is carved into the top of the arch. The inscription is flanked by fictive sculptures of Heraclitus and Democritus, the weeping and laughing philosophers of Greek antiquity. Both figures point to a soap bubble (“Man is but a bubble” is a classical aphorism), which, if read in light of the traditional iconography of the two philosophers, doubles as a globe.

de Gheyn II, Jacques_Vanitas Still Life (bubble detail)

The bubble mirrors a number of disparate objects, which are difficult to make out. Bergström identifies a trophy group along the middle axis of the bubble: a crown in the center with various weapons converging upon it. At the top is an upturned moneybag with coins streaming out. Most discernible is the wheel of torture at the bottom right, and above that is a leper’s rattle, which lepers in some areas were required to shake to alert others to their proximity; these are symbols of human frailty. Also reflected “are a caduceus (probably signifying commerce) and a pair of bellows (signifying luxury?). Playing cards, backgammon with dice, and drinking vessels allude to vain pleasures and pastimes. The highlight of the sphere mirrors a burning heart, pierced by an arrow—an image of earthly love, of luxury” (153).

Though the painting doesn’t explicitly reference our lectionary reading from Psalm 90, it does complement the psalmist’s reflection on how short and precarious life is—it’s like a wilting flower, a burning candle, a fragile bubble. Here today, gone tomorrow. Which is why it’s so important to live wisely while we still can.

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To access another Artful Devotion for AProp28, on 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, click here.


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 Proper 28, cycle A, click here.