Take Me to Church/Art 3/10/19: Lenten Altar

William Corwin, Lenten Altar (2019).  Photo by Michelle Thompson.

Mercury is in retrograde for the better part of March, which I guess a certain kind of Christian and/or intellectual doesn’t care about.  I’m not even entirely sure what it means.  Still, though, I swear I felt that planet moving into its hideous state of discontent and disinformation on Tuesday morning as the 1 train rumbled towards the Bronx.  It was my fifth day of a…diet, I guess, although I don’t think I’m supposed to call it that.  I was supposed to eliminate meat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine from my diet.  (For those of you who know me well, guess which one of those I didn’t eliminate right off the bat, and for those of you don’t, it was caffeine.)  I thought it would help me move into a prayerful attitude slightly ahead of Lent and also take off a few pounds in advance of my trip to Florida in a few weeks, in which I’ll likely bare some portion of my arms and legs that have been wrapped in layers of tights and goose down for the past four months.  Win-win, right?  Well, it turns out ketosis makes me…pretty depressed.  I had a priest at the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity (thanks for the conveniently timed impositions of ashes, Episcopalians!) praying for my therapist after I broke down crying while getting my forehead dirtied. I can now honestly say I’ve been advised by that same therapist not to undertake such a diet again the next time someone tells me how great paleo is.  I had some nachos and I’m getting my life back together.

So the past week was kind of a mess, is what I’m trying to say.  Fortunately I’m not alone.  I didn’t know churches could get rejection letters, but Judson got one, this regarding the feasibility of our long-hoped-for Capital Campaign Phase 2 for an elevator to replace our aging lift.  “Our exceptionalism,” Donna noted in her sermon this morning, “is dying a hard death,” as she explained why she decided to remove our long-running slogan A church that’s a little bit different and committed to making a big difference! from our bulletins for the season of Lent.  We are like so many churches, trying to figure out how to stretch our beautiful but broken buildings into the rest of the 21st century.  At the same time, our administrator, the amazing Molly, is moving on to a new position, and we are figuring out how to carry on without her too.  I hope Judson fares better on less in the coming days than I did.

And isn’t this the heart of the Lenten message, really?  We begin with remembering that our bodies, too, are broken and impermanent, on Ash Wednesday.  We will never be equal to the task of overcoming sin.  But where the world promises to fix that particular shortcoming with a never-ending parade of products and jobs and distractions, the church offers a different promise, one so simple that, paradoxically, we will spend our whole lives trying to accept it.  Because we can never be enough, we are already enough.  It is said that Jesus saw the entirety of human sin from the Garden of Gethsemane—every sin that had ever been committed and every sin that ever would be—and went on to accept his death anyway.  There are no exceptions to the brokenness we experience, and no exceptions to the love extended to us in the death and resurrection we will commemorate in the coming days.  Jesus, as Donna reminded us later in the sermon, was all about the paradox, all about subverting the boring binaries the world offers us: master/servant, male/female, death/life.  There’s a lot more in-between, a lot more to be explored.

“For Lent I’m giving up,” went a joke that made the rounds on Twitter on Ash Wednesday.  I heeded that particular message and gave up my poorly-conceived diet.  Now, as I guiltily nibble on chocolate-covered almonds, I wonder if I can give up exceptionalism instead.  I wonder if I can give up thinking that the rules don’t apply to me.  I wonder if I can give up my refusal to believe that I can get tired, sick, angry, injured, or frustrated.  I wonder if I can give up my sense that someone else will do the thing.

We are hosting William Corwin’s Lenten Altar (see photo by Michelle Thompson at the top of this post), a piece that not only invokes the cross but also the phoenix, the seraphim, and fertility and animalist totems.  Corwin carried the cross and placed it beneath our rose window in a cross procession that wouldn’t have been out of place in a more traditional Christian service on the first Sunday of Lent.  Maybe we really aren’t as exceptional as we think.  We might have heard testimony from the artist about his symbology later in the service; we might have heard from an Israeli Jew who offers his prayer through Tibetan singing bowls later still.  But we are entering the Lenten journey of unexceptionalism, perhaps kicking and screaming, with the rest of creation as we await spring.

The Lenten altar awaits our sacrifices.  It’s a different altar, but the sacrifices are the same: giving up the need to be right, the conviction that you are somehow special, the insistence that we need not give up anything.  Or maybe they’re just your particular chocolate-covered almonds.

Mercury retrograde will end, and we’ll all stop believing the movement of the planets has any influence on our thoughts and behavior, and we’ll all be able to give up sugar and sleep well and feel like we are doing JUST FINE, THANKS.  Or maybe not.  Either way, Easter waits for us on the other side no matter what we do.  No exceptions.






  1. […] Speaking of trouble, Palm Sunday, as Micah interpreted for us this morning, marks a dramatic shift in the particular kind and degree of trouble Jesus was willing to cause.  As it happens, the famous donkey-and-palm parade of Palm Sunday wasn’t just fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, which is, you know, a big enough deal in and of itself; no, it was also an elaborate act of political performance art, mocking the parade of Pontius Pilate into Jerusalem at the same time.  It foreshadowed Jesus’s literal flipping of the tables in the Temple, where the poor and the many were at the mercy of the select few who could deem their sacrifices acceptable to God, and of course of the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus just a few short days later.  The Passion represents, among other things, a pathetic attempt at upholding the authority of the Roman Empire, keeping the very worst kind of peace: a peace that comes at the cost of the poorest and most vulnerable.  So this was one glittery thread of the fabric of today’s Palm Sunday: Jesus was a master of protest and defiance, who knew that a display of humility could also be aimed towards taking down the powerful and that power is best wielded to defend and uplift the humbled.  (Yet another Lenten paradox?) […]

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