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.


Resurrection Finds Us

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Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, Tidying (1945)


Stanley Spencer’s church cemetery visitors find themselves surprised by being found! They experience being found through a resurrection encounter with those who have gone before.

The resurrection of Jesus is not usually something we go looking for. The risen Jesus comes and finds us. This is the pattern we see in so many of the stories of Jesus’s first resurrection appearances to his friends and followers. The disciples and others don’t go looking for him except at first, when they go to the tomb. And even then, they are seeking Jesus’ mortal remains rather than his risen presence. He comes and finds them, just as he finds us, often in the context of fellowship. And like them, we are always surprised.

We don’t find the resurrection just as we don’t find God. Neither God nor the risen Jesus are lost, even if we may be. And so, we are found by both, and then we find ourselves as persons who have been found. This is instructive, for it corresponds with our apprehension of and encounter with beauty, which we also misleadingly credit ourselves with ‘finding.’ Really, beauty finds us. For our perception and recognition of beauty depends not on a ‘power’ that we possess to pursue and attain it, but rather on our ability to receive and recognize what is, and what is given. The same is true in our apprehension of and encounter with the grace of the resurrection.

Motivated by our sense of need, we seek to find something or someone to fill the hole at the center of our lives. Though it is a challenge for many of us, being open to being found by the Risen Lord not only meets our need, but can fill us with great joy.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen!


Stanley Spencer’s, Resurrection, Tidying, is one of a large series of paintings based on the theme of Resurrection, which span the years of his mature work.

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).

What does it mean to touch – and be touched?

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An image provided by the Jesuits of Ireland


Many of us are sacramental Christians. For us, what is tangible —that is, what we can touch— is often our doorway to the intangible. And so, practical material things having spiritual meaning can become our doorway to immaterial things that are spiritual and mystical.This is especially true in the Eucharist, but also in Baptism. In these rites, we touch, and are touched.

This is one reason why Jesus was so influential in the lives of the original 12 disciples. To see him, to touch him, and to hear him speak ~ these had been critically important experiences for them. Even before his death, they began to sense that knowing Jesus was in some way an entrance into deeper truth and greater life. But this also made it harder for them to deal with his empty tomb, when they had to face his apparent disappearance and absence. With their loss of immediacy with Jesus, fear was added to their sadness. Then, they hid behind locked doors in the crowded Holy City. What should we to make of their experience in that room, especially as we hear about it in John’s Gospel?

Visitors to this blog know I like to find images from art to help us hear the Gospel. This is because artists can help us see and notice things that might otherwise escape our attention. And yet, works of art can also sometimes lead us to mishear what a Gospel reading actually says. This is especially true of the annual day when we hear about Thomas and the other 10 disciples who are hiding after Jesus’ death. As always, we need to engage this Gospel with discernment. For it is really about all of the doubting disciples, as well as about how they all came to believe. Unfortunately, most paintings of this event mis-portray what John actually says, and what he doesn’t say. The classic picture is the one by the famous painter, Caravaggio. He portrays Thomas not only peering closely at Jesus’ side; but also shows him with his fingers poked into Jesus’ spear-wound. (Note also the one above.)

Why are such images misleading? It’s because paintings and labels like these lead us to overlook or misperceive some very important details within the story. For though Thomas has been invited to touch Jesus, John does actually describe him as doing so. (Also, note how Bible editors sometimes steer readers toward certain conclusions by editorial headings before paragraphs.)

First, we find ten of the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. Consider how Jesus had more than once told them to fear not! And at the Last Supper, he had already given them ‘his peace.’ Rather than remember what Jesus had shared with them, as well as his miracles, the remaining disciples have succumbed to fear. Even though Mary Magdalene had already told them she had seen the Lord. How can these facts be squared with any other description than that the ten behind locked doors are doubting, as well?

Second, observe how John describes Jesus’ initial appearance to the ten, when he finds them fearful and doubting. At first, they do not recognize Jesus. It is only after he shows them his hands and his side that they then recognize him, and rejoice at his presence. When they see him, then they believe, and not before. And so, once again, Jesus leaves them with his peace, and now gives them his Spirit.

Notice what the others say to Thomas when he then arrives: “We have seen the Lord” ~ the very same witness Mary had earlier given to them, but without having had much prior effect. Thomas naturally replies to them by saying something like this: ‘Look, I haven’t see him, like you guys have. And so, just like you, I won’t likely believe until I see him, as well.” Thomas’ statement to them therefore does not need to be heard as him setting the conditions for his belief. It may simply be a practical prediction of fact, opening a doorway to his and their later way of experiencing Jesus sacramentally. And, as N.T. “Tom” Wright observes, in John’s Gospel Thomas was the first to call Jesus “God.”


See John’s Gospel, chapter 20, for this story in its wider context. To see the homily/sermon on which this text is based, please click here.

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.

Beauty in Holy Week

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Stanley Spencer, The Crucifixion (1958)


During this Holy Week I find myself reflecting on the paradox at the heart of Jesus’ Crucifixion. In it we perceive a dramatic juxtaposition of serenity with antagonism, of beauty with its dark opposite, and of moral good with apparent evil.

We can see this in a remarkable parallel between two paintings that were completed some 500 years apart: Hieronymus Bosch’s (attributed), Christ Carrying the Cross (1510-35), shown below, and Stanley Spencer’s, Crucifixion (1958). Both portray the tranquil visage and peaceful heart of Jesus, even in the face of vicious hostility.

Like Bosch, Spencer helps us see what the beautiful One in our midst sometimes provokes. Especially when the shining light of his presence exposes the dark shadows within and around us. For his light sometimes prompts fierce anger and envy, as well as a callous indifference to cruelty and suffering. Things of which we are all capable. And we are likely to have much invested in denying that ugly truth. Strangely, when confronted face to face with a divinity that is the opposite of our perversity, we will either fight the light that we encounter, or surrender to it. The Passion narratives give us examples of those who resisted and even fought against the Light of the World. Especially against the disturbing possibility that Jesus might conquer their pervasive ungodliness.  And so, they sought to do away with his godliness.

An encounter with true beauty can be unsettling and troubling, especially if we have already settled for so much less. It may be our sensitivity to the same juxtaposition of opposites I have noted, and their apparent lack of resolve. We often hope for the triumph of good over evil, that beauty will overcome darkness, and serenity displace antagonism. But we cannot find it within ourselves to do more than hope. We cannot achieve the redemptive resolution for which we haltingly reach out with our feeble hands and hearts.

It is not an accident that the Christ figure in Stanley Spencer’s painting recedes visually in the foreground, while those who oppose and crucify him grab our interest. Spencer, after mastering traditional realism, adopted what he called a neo-primitive style. He was a gifted colorist, and highly proficient with composition. And so, as Spencer has rendered him, Jesus’ skin tone and color roughly match that of the wood of the cross, as well as the clothing of the man with the hammer swung over his head. Spencer’s rendering of the Lord’s skin tone and color also matches much of the sky and the ground below, including the tunic of Mary Magdalene, prostrate at the foot of the cross. This forms a compelling visual symbol of Jesus’ total identification with us, in his Incarnation and in his Crucifixion. It symbolizes his complete joining with us, and with our world of tearing hurts and suffering.

In fact —as we see in Spencer’s composition and coloring— it is precisely because Jesus blended in so well with everyday life, that those who opposed him could literally gain the upper hand, ultimately with hammers and nails. But this is the marvel of the incarnation of our God in Jesus, that the fullness of divinity could be so thoroughly joined to our fallen humanity. As the Gospels attest, this joining was so complete that many did not notice or have regard for his divinity. When we do notice his total identification with us, when we come face to face with the truth it represents, we have either one or the other of two reactions. We throw ourselves down in humility before him. Or, we seek to throw him down, to humble him before us.

Spencer at work on his Crucifixion

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.