The Call of Matthew

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Caravaggio, The Call of St. Matthew (1619-1620)


Artists who portray biblical figures and events – particularly those who approach their work in a self-consciously Christian way – often feel free to explore the dynamics of Gospel scenes in a personal and imaginative manner. Some Gospel stories lend themselves to such an explorative approach. Other stories seem to prompt a portrayal of biblical persons and their circumstances in a more literal, text-dependent way.

The call of the tax collector in Matthew 9 provides a good basis for both, especially at the hands of the great early 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio. Above, we see his painting of The Call of St Matthew, based on what may be a brief narrative self-portrait provided by the Gospel writer about his decision to respond to Jesus’ summons to follow him. Here, Caravaggio displays a fidelity to the biblical story even though the artist depicts the event with figures clothed in garments characteristic of his own time and place.

Several aspects of the painting should attract our attention. For they have the power to draw us into the scene and its place in the broader sweep of what some have called ‘the great story.’ The figure on the right side of the picture is obviously that of Jesus, who with bare feet has entered the place where the tax collector Matthew may be both entertaining himself as well as conducting his business. The room where the group of men are sitting is darkened, a detail that is surely symbolic given how light enters the room from the direction of Christ’s arrival. As Matthew’s Gospel quotes Isaiah (in chapter 5), “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadows of death light has dawned.”

Notice also Caravaggio’s sensitive rendering of Jesus’ outstretched hand. It is highly reminiscent of Michelangelo’s nearby Sistine Chapel ceiling panel depicting God’s act of creation and gift of life to Adam through a similarly depicted outstretched arm.

But which of the sitting men portrays Matthew? The answer is by no means obvious, and may be intentionally ambiguous. A ready candidate is the gentleman facing us, seated in the middle of the group, who appears to point to himself. By his gesture, he seems to ask in response to Christ’s summons, “Do you mean me?” His pointing hand, a visual echo of the pointing hand of Jesus, and the look on his face call attention to himself. Further, this bearded man bears a resemblance to the older-looking Matthew depicted in Caravaggio’s, The Inspiration of St Matthew (shown below).

Yet, another possible candidate for an identification with Matthew in this picture is the young man portrayed on the left side of the painting, whose head is bowed over and who is focused on some coins before him. In support of this identification is the presence of two other young men sitting at the opposite end of the table, whose gaze is fixed upon the unexpected visitor. By contrast with all three, Caravaggio may instead have intended to portray the mature Matthew in his accompanying The Inspiration of St Matthew painting, as well as in his The Martyrdom of St Matthew, both of which are located in the same church in Rome as The Call painting. For in the ‘call’ image, a young man is invited to leave his dubious present occupation and circumstances in order to follow Jesus, which seems most fitting. This invitation leads to a subsequent application of the maturing man’s talents in support of God’s mission, centered on the One whom he would come to recognize as the Messiah. As Caravaggio may have depicted in this scene, the potential consequences of accepting Jesus’ summons may just be dawning upon the young man.

Caravaggio’s paintings display a remarkable skill in rendering people and places in a most realistic way. His paintings are also highly regarded in recognition of his flair for dramatic pictorial compositions that feature a strong contrast between light and dark. He might have applied these skills primarily in the pursuit of fame and material wealth. Such intentions are likely to have numbered among his goals. Yet, Caravaggio’s work exhibits an undeniable spiritual sensitivity. This makes it most appropriate that we can view and appreciate his three St Matthew paintings together in a church in Rome rather than in a museum.

The Beauty of Trinitarian Life

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Brother Robert Lentz, Holy Trinity


Here is a Robert Lentz icon-styled painting that blends an historic approach to portraying the Holy Trinity with an inclusion of modern astronomical imagery. The facial depiction of the first two members of the Holy Trinity are presented in a very traditional way, while the images of the galaxies very obviously depend upon telescopic photography.

The most significant truth expressed within this composition by Lentz is that all three members of the Holy Trinity were and are involved in Creation, both in terms of the primal event, as well as in an ongoing divine presence within the whole of the cosmos, a theme found in John’s Gospel as well as in Paul’s letter to the Colossians among other biblical texts.

If there is any drawback to Lentz’s composition it is one shared with just about every Trinity-themed painting of which I am aware. To put it plainly, Lentz depicts the members of the Holy Trinity as ‘them,’ as objects of our subjectivity, as divine persons we contemplate, hold in regard, and with whom we contemplate or entertain relational involvement.

What this approach lacks, perhaps of necessity in a two dimensional medium, is an expression of the equally important and sometimes non-experiential truth that we are also the objects of the divine subjectivity, and how – after Baptism – we are inseparable from involvement with and in the Trinitarian life of God.

The simplest way to help make this evident can be found in all six of the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer, as well as in many of the Collects. We pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. And so, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are to live as we pray, to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

We should no longer try to depict the Holy Trinity through two dimensional imagery, much less with diagrams, or with objects like a three-leaf clover. For in each of these cases, we render the grace-filled context of our new and relational, post-Baptismal, life as if the grounding source for our being, and our life in Christ, was somehow external to us, and something which we might still have a need to approach.

Yet, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, the Father is now in us, and we are in him. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. This is the great mystery, the paradox, and the beauty of Trinitarian life in Christ after Baptism.

The Mystery of Pentecost

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Giotto, Pentecost (Scrovegni (or Arena) Chapel, Padua)


Once again we turn to Giotto, who helps put a ‘human face’ on a supernaturally-charged event. As we observed with his fresco depicting the Ascension of Jesus, Giotto’s Pentecost painting evidences the influence of medieval and Eastern Orthodox iconography (e.g., the gold-leaf halos). Yet, his work distinctively moved away from a primary absorption with portraying aspects of the eternal so as to display an appreciation for daily human life and activity. One mark of this is his employment of architectural perspective in his composition of the scene. In addition, each of the faces in this Scrovegni Chapel fresco are recognizably distinct from one another, with some of them reflecting a genuine regard for individual personality and temperament.

Here we can also notice Giotto’s attention to the biblical text. This scene portraying the gift of the Holy Spirit follow’s Luke rather than John. In John’s Gospel, on the evening of the day of the discovery of his Resurrection – the Risen Jesus enters the private room where the disciples are hiding fearfully behind a locked door. He breathes on them his Holy Spirit and implies that his Ascension has already occurred.

Luke, as Giotto faithfully portrays, describes the disciples being gathered together 50 days after the Resurrection on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. As Luke reports in the last two verses of his Gospel, after witnessing Jesus’ Ascension the disciples “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Luke then commences his second book, Acts, with a parallel account of Jesus’ Ascension, and the selection process of Matthias as a replacement for the traitor, Judas. Having returned joyfully to Jerusalem, the disciples have been visiting the Temple daily, where they blessed and worshipped God in a public setting.

Luke’s Pentecost assembly differs markedly from John’s account of the fearful disciples on the afternoon of the first day of the new week, forty nine days before. For on Pentecost, into their midst and visibly upon their heads, came the Holy Spirit filling each of them with its power and presence.

Many visitors to Jerusalem for the great feast became aware of what had occurred, and were perplexed, marveling at the unexpected spectacle of how each of them heard the men from the north country speak in their own separate and distinct languages. The legacy of the tower of Babel had been overcome.

Peter quickly helped account for what was happening in light of Scriptures familiar to those gathered, which were fulfilled in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection. God was now doing a new thing, yet something promised long before.

How contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer, in John 17, and to the witness to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is our frequent experience of the Church throughout the world in our present day. Despite moving words centered on unity and a commonality of mission that we hear and recite in the baptismal rite, we are more often confronted with evidence of difference and division among Christians of varying denominations and cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is because we let our own concepts of our mission and ministries take precedence over our awareness of and belief in the primacy of Christ’s continuing mission and ministry.

And so, we forget to marvel at what came about through the embodied presence of God. A divinely appointed and inspired country rabbi, who had recruited 12 unlikely followers, met persecution and a tragic death at the hands of a corrupt earthly empire. Yet, in the power of the Holy Spirit, over the course of a few centuries he transformed a sizable portion of the known world into the New Israel, his beloved community and family.


The Beauty of the Ascension

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Giotto, The Ascension of Jesus


The way that we envision the Ascension of Jesus is largely shaped by Luke’s Gospel, as well as by his book of Acts. As the Church’s liturgy observes and celebrates Luke’s presentation of this event, it occurs on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, which always falls on a Thursday. With diminished weekday worship attendance in most churches, the feast of the Ascension is often observed on the following Sunday, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. As Luke’s Gospel records the event,

[Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

In Acts, Luke presents a fuller account of

… the day when he was taken up…, [when] he presented himself alive to them… [H]e said to them, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Giotto beautifully portrays Jesus’ Ascension in a fresco found within the Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Arena Chapel) in Padua, Italy. Giotto’s approach to painting proved pivotal in the transition within Western art from dependence upon Eastern Christian iconographic imagery toward a greater realism and sensitivity to ‘ordinary’ human life in this world. Unlike medieval and eastern Christian icons, which tend to be absorbed with expressing dimensions of the eternal, Giotto portrays a real event in the temporal lives of real people. Nevertheless, Giotto’s Ascension is clearly also attentive and faithful to the supernatural elements of the Luke-Acts descriptions of Jesus’ Ascension.

It has been observed that in these modern times, among the most neglected aspects of traditional Christian doctrine is a proper understanding of Jesus’ Ascension. This may be due to a contemporary proclivity to read the New Testament as if its significance is primarily ethical, while shying away from engagement with the metaphysical and the miraculous elements of the Gospel narratives.

A collect from The Book of Common Prayer helps us appreciate why the Ascension of Jesus continues to be a major feast of Our Lord on the Church’s calendar:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. (BCP:226)

Jesus ascended not so that he might withdraw from the world, making room as it were for the mission of the Holy Spirit. Instead, his Ascension marked his transition from being present at one time and in one place, to becoming present in all places all the time. Before his death, there were countless places where he was not. After his Ascension, there is no place where he is not. From being with only some of those who lived during his earthly years, he is with all of us now. And from having a particular presence and context for his ministry, Jesus in his Ascension transitioned to a universal presence for his continuing mission, so “that he might fill all things.”

Alleluia. Christ is Risen and Ascended! And in the Holy Spirit he is present everywhere and to all who might welcome him into our lives.


Through Death Into New Life

Peter Koenig, Christ as Second Moses


A perennial theme in the New Testament and in Christian reflection concerns how we are called to live through death into new life. When we die to our worldly attachments, and their hold upon us, we open ourselves to a greater life beyond. As the Christ our Passover canticle from The Book of Common Prayer puts it,

Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; *
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; *
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So also consider yourselves dead to sin, *
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Peter Koenig’s painting, centered on themes within this Easter season, expresses this motif in a particularly evocative way. Just as Moses led the people of Israel through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God, so Christ leads us through and to the same. This happens for us liturgically in the rite of Baptism. As Koenig explores this idea, he not only depicts Christ parting the waters but also shows the water emerging from the Lord’s side. This reflects John’s account of how blood and water came forth from Jesus’ side on the cross, but also suggests how water from the rock in the wilderness brought life to God’s people during Israel’s wandering toward the Promised Land. The “Thanksgiving over the Water,” in The Prayer Book Baptismal Rite articulates these ideas in a compact way:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Notice how, in the painting at the top, Peter Koenig portrays the crucified and risen Christ before what appears to be a darkened tomb filled with people. As we hear Isaiah quoted in Advent, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Christ leads the way, and makes possible our journey from the darkness of death into our new covenant life with God.

The two side paintings that accompany Koenig’s Christ as Second Moses artfully yet powerfully suggest the drama within the Exodus account of Israel’s Red Sea Crossing. The chariots of Pharaoh succumb to the waters of death while Israel is safely delivered on dry ground to their Covenant encounter with God at Sinai. Another canticle from The Prayer Book puts it well:

I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted; *
the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my refuge; *
the Lord has become my Savior.
This is my God and I will praise him, *
the God of my people and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a mighty warrior; *
Yahweh is his Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea; *
the finest of those who bear armor have been drowned in the Red Sea.
The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them; *
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might; *
your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.

Most of us have the blessing of not facing the equivalent of Pharaoh’s army. But we do have an enemy. And our enemy is the darkness and death of loving self and this world, even to the contempt of God, when God bids us to love him, even to the contempt of self and this world. When we live as we pray, to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit, we experience new life.


The above painting is Peter Koenig’s, Christ as the Second Moses, also known as The Rainbow Resurrection (used by permission of the artist). The final paragraph contains a paraphrase of St. Augustine concerning how we love God, from The City of God (Book 14, chapter 28).

Beauty Over the Reality of Chaos

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Peter Koenig, Good Shepherd Resurrection


The Resurrection of Jesus is all about grounded hope, and the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. Peter Koenig’s Good Shepherd Resurrection provides a compelling image of its power. The painting builds upon ancient biblical imagery of chaos manifest as a sea monster, and acknowledges how death and resistance to the will of God in the order of Creation pervade the world. The painting is brilliant in its conception, precisely because it is so counter to our culture-bound world of Easter bunnies, daffodils, and pastel-colored candy.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not mainly about hopeful feelings, a positive attitude and self-improvement, even though it can enable these things. His Resurrection is really about the defeat of evil and death, and triumph over pain and suffering. We may not immediately experience that defeat and triumph in our every moment of need. But, we live by Easter faith, and not by Easter feelings.

Peter Koenig risks showing us the Risen Lord stepping out of the mouth of a sea monster. The fresh water from his side recalls the water he made into wine, his crucifixion, and also -much earlier- the water from the rock in the wilderness. All these give us fresh water that fulfills genuine human need, as compared with the inhospitable salt water in which the dragon finds its abode. Every one of us is the lamb, held safely upon his shoulders, as he carries us out of the jaws of death into the new life where he is preeminent.

To me, this is real hope. Precisely because it is hope that deals with where we are now, rather than hope for something that might be, some day, somewhere. Both you and I want the kind of hope that squarely addresses all the things we’ve been worried about this last month. We all want hope that squarely confronts all the things we fear might go wrong in the coming month. And that is the kind of real hope that God brings to us in Jesus’ resurrection.


It pleases me once again to feature Peter Koenig’s painting, Good Shepherd Resurrection. This painting continues to give me confidence and courage. Click here to visit the website where this and other paintings by him may be viewed, or search his name on the internet. To see my Easter homily from which this is adapted, please click here. For background, see Revelation 12 and or do an internet search for biblical texts related to the words dragon, Rahab (i.e., Job 26:12-13 & Isaiah 51:9-10), Leviathan (i.e., Job 3:8, Psalm 74:13-14 & Isaiah 27:1), the deep, etc.

Entry Into Jerusalem

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James Tissot, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem


This coming Sunday will be Palm Sunday in the Church’s western calendar, when we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The day will also mark the beginning of our observance of Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord.

In James Tissot’s painting (above), look at the crowd of excited people he portrays, who await and greet Jesus’ entry into the Holy City. Two things are obvious about the arrival of this rabbi from the north in Jerusalem. We notice the huge and enthusiastic crowd. And, we notice the object of their attention, Jesus, who is riding on a donkey. At first, we naturally assume an affinity between the crowd and Jesus. The crowd is joyful about Jesus precisely because he is the answer to their questions, and the apparent solution to their concerns. Who he is seems to fit neatly with who they are, and with where they want to go. After all, who wouldn’t be happy when long-nurtured hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.

As Matthew describes the scene, the crowd responds to Jesus’ arrival in two ways, both of which evoke historic precedent. We learn from 2 Kings about the followers of Jehu. When they learn he has been anointed king, they spread their cloaks for him to walk on. And in 2 Maccabees, we learn how Judas Maccabaeus was greeted upon arriving in Jerusalem, after defeating Israel’s enemies. The people honored him by waving palm branches in the air. To clinch the point, Matthew want us to know that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd’s dramatic response was a fulfillment of God’s word through the prophets: “”Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

In other words, as Matthew describes Jesus’ arrival in the city, the crowd’s greeting of him suggested a similar hope, that he might vanquish the repressive powers causing God’s people to suffer. This Nazarene might be the one to make God’s Kingdom present in their time. These observations can help us appreciate how Jesus was greeted when he entered Jerusalem, and how he was viewed soon after. For, like so many leaders in history, he was the object of an immense amount of hopeful projection. And yet, he did not arrive as a warrior on a horse.

Look again at this crowd in Tissot’s wonderful painting of Jesus’ arrival. How many in this crowd are looking directly at him? And of those, how many actually see him, and for who he is rather than for what he represents among their pre-existing desires? Look at how many in the crowd are carried away by the moment. They are excited by imagined possibilities, rather than by the Kingdom concretely at hand. This situation is not merely of historical interest, nor is it primarily about other people, living at another time. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is also about us. His arrival invites us to consider our own hopes and expectations as we greet Him with palms and walk along beside him this Holy Week.


This image is from James Tissot’s painting, The Entry Into the City. I am indebted to N.T. Wright for the specific references to earlier biblical precedents regarding the way Jesus was greeted upon his arrival in Jerusalem.

The Beauty of Psalm 139

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Frank Lloyd Wright is known primarily for the huge scope of his architectural work, and perhaps secondarily for the furnishings he designed for his buildings, which include everything from furniture to lamps to tableware. Less well-known are Wright’s graphic designs which were materialized in tapestries, wall panels, carpets, and in stained glass windows.

Just as I was strongly influenced by Wright’s architectural work when I aspired to follow him into the practice of his vocation, my design vision was just as impacted by his graphic work. In my case, this influence was not manifest in plans for such things as tapestries or windows, but in designs for paper products such as cards and stationary, and for handmade pamphlets. Among these were one featuring text from Psalm 139 (:1-17), and another text from the Song of Songs.

Above and below are some images of the little Psalm 139 pamphlet I created in the autumn of 1977 using a circle template, a rapidograph pen, an old-fashioned typewriter, and charcoal paper, along with a binding of stranded thread.



The above images are copyright, © Stephen Holmgren 2023. This post is based on a little pamphlet featuring Psalm 139:1-17, which I made while staying at the Pension Colorado in central Florence during the fall semester of 1977 while on a study abroad program through St Olaf College, in my sophomore year. I also acknowledge the probable influence of Alexander Calder’s mobiles.

Beauty in Parallel Revisited


Perhaps the only thing more memorable than driving over the Golden Gate Bridge may be to pass under it on an ocean-going ship. I was lucky enough to have that experience five times before I was a teenager.

Many of us assume the name for this bridge is related to its warm color. But the name comes from the ocean straight over which it stands, and not from the Gold Rush. Rather than mimicking gold, the bridge’s official color—“International Orange”—was chosen to contrast with fog. A story is told about when that color was first applied. Painters dabbed splotches of it on the heads of curious seagulls. Pretty soon, Bay Area birdwatchers reported a new bird species, which was called the California Red-Headed seagull!

Until 1964, the Golden Gate Bridge had the longest main span in the world. Yet, its basic design isn’t unique. We know this from other suspension bridges, which are found all over the world. Bridges of this kind have two main towers, steadied in place by their suspension cables, which are anchored in the ground. From their anchor points, these substantial cables ascend to the top of the towers, and then gently descend again to the center of the bridge. From that low point, they again soar up, to the top of the opposite tower. The slightly arched roadway across is literally suspended from these main cables, by small support cables that hang from them. Here, in the beauty of this simple design, we find a helpful spiritual and liturgical metaphor.

Reflect for a moment about two significant Sundays in the church year. One is the last Sunday after Epiphany, or Transfiguration Sunday, which we observed 10 days ago. The other is Easter Day, which lies ahead. Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before this season of Lent, and Easter Day is the first Sunday after Lent. Both Sundays are as important with regard to our identity as they are to that of Jesus. For in his Transfiguration and in his Resurrection, Jesus does not simply reveal who he really is. He also reveals the fulfillment of our vocation to be fully human, in him.

Imagine these two Sundays on the Church calendar as being like the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Transfiguration Sunday, coming just before Lent, is like the south tower of the Golden Gate bridge, on the busy urban, San Francisco, side of the straight. And, Easter Sunday is like the north tower of that bridge, on the less familiar and historically rural side of that navigational channel. The season of Lent stretches between these two Sundays like the main span of that bridge, taking us from what we think we know to that which may yet to be disclosed to us.

Here is the crucial part ~ every year we need to make this liturgical crossing, from our sharing in the vision of the Transfiguration, to our participation in the joy of Easter Resurrection. And like the great towers of a suspension bridge, Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday uphold us all the way across our Lenten journey over what sometimes may seem like dark, cold, and turbulent waters around us.


This posting is a revised version of a post I first published in 2017, and is based on my recent homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which explores the parallel between the revelation of glory that we see in the Transfiguration, and the glory we see in the Resurrection (click here for a link to it).

The Beauty of ‘Nothing’ (as we observe Ash Wednesday)



This past Sunday, using the metaphor of the twin towers of a suspension bridge, I invited our local congregation to explore a pairing of two Sundays in the calendar, Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday. These are the interrelated Sundays immediately before and after Lent. Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent present us with a similar opportunity. Here, we can explore the relationship between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. With this second comparison between liturgical days, instead of noticing a parallel, we can observe an evident paradox.

On Easter Sunday, we face an unusual challenge. We must take the finding of an absence, and discern within it a presence. Something that was known, seen and touched, became as if it was nothing. And so, we are challenged to see how an empty tomb could at the same time be full of meaning. Even though Mary Magdalene and the disciples found nothing in the tomb, they came away with the conviction that something profound was there.

Consider, then, this remarkable contrast. In the metaphors at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we observe inverse phenomena. What would Ash Wednesday be without ashes? Ashes constitute a biblical image with a long and vivid history. And our tactile liturgical use of this common material plays a central role in our services on the first day of Lent. Yet, this liturgical presence of ashes is meant to represent an absence. A dish full of ashes in my hand represents something larger, which is empty. Something (the sign of the cross) is marked with ash on parishioners’ foreheads, and it symbolizes the starkness of nothing, or, literally, no thing.

So, the Sunday of joyful resurrection presence provides the reverse of the Wednesday of regrettable absence. Though it wouldn’t sound as good, Ash Wednesday could instead be called, “Absence Wednesday,” “Empty Wednesday,” or “Nothing Wednesday.” This is because the ashes at the heart of the liturgy for this day symbolize an absence, an emptiness, or a ‘nothing.’ I don’t mean that the ashes are empty of meaning. It’s just that what they represent is literally nothing. Ashes represent nothing of value, nothing of worth. And that is what makes them special! We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us that, on our own and relying on ourselves, we are nothing of value, nothing of worth. No matter how hard we try, we don’t give meaning and value to ourselves. Only God does that.

Our lives can sometimes feel like they are full of “nothings,” as if all that we do only amounts to ashes or dust. All too quickly, we forget that dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s creation of human beings. They are the building blocks of God’s Kingdom. When we think about something we have done, and are tempted to say, “O, it’s really nothing at all,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing’.


This posting is a slightly altered republication of a post from March 2017. It is based on a homily for Ash Wednesday that I have frequently offered, the most recent text of which can be found by clicking here.