ART: Window Two — Ash Wednesday by Michael Sullivan

A Lenten Journey of Stories and Art

Ash Wednesday Michael Sullivan

From: Windows Into the Light

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

God who rises from the ashes, go with me into my places of grief and doubt; fill me with love and respect for the life I have been given; and teach me to hear my life speak of your light no matter the darkness that I feel; through Jesus the Christ, who always liberates and loves with abandon. Amen.

Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

(Beware of practicing your piety before others)

Jesus said, Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in Heaven.  So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Three-year-olds are the best theologians.

When my son, Jack, was three, he was a regular Paul Tillich, a small active body with eternal truths thrown out at a pace one couldn’t fathom.  My wife and I would be standing in the kitchen, having our glass of wine and preparing dinner, when Jack would casually stride in and pronounce something like, God is sad today; people were hungry on TV, referring to a segment on the news, or, Jesus loves that man on the street, Daddy, remembering the homeless man we passed each morning as we drove to preschool.

And without a doubt, he showed me up.  All the post-graduate work at Duke, seminary, and even my law school years had not taught me what he already knew about life.  I had known this truth since the day he was born; Jack just had that extra something that so many of us want so badly.  But his infinite wisdom came clearly into focus when a young man in the parish I was serving died of cancer.  My son, growing up in the house of a priest, had long known that people died in the middle of the night; beepers and telephones at three in the morning wake even the smallest among us.  But this death, one that came over months and not in an instant, served as a catalyst for something deep within my son – something at the core of his being and at the core of the Christian journey.

Jack had known about this particular parishioner for a while.  Because the man was young and because I talked about him all the time, Jack had known the name William and the idea of his cancer for about two years.  Somehow, even at his age, Jack seemed to accept the fact that life was throwing this young man a curve ball early on, and he’d long decided that the inevitable would happen.  So when William died, Jack was ready – well, at least at the end of the whole story he was.  But nothing had prepared him, or me for that matter, for all that we would learn together over the unfolding days and months surrounding William’s death.

William had planned every detail of his funeral.  The service was to be held in a gorgeous Gothic structure – you know, the kind of heart-pine, country Gothic parish that was built all over creation back when Episcopalians had more money than God (well, I suppose some things never change).  Stained glass, some of it Tiffany; dark, oak, much of it hand-carved; slate roof and stone walls from a local quarry; and a gallery organ imported from Europe – they all set the scene for the unexpected – a band of guitars, bass, drums, and even a little brass.  You see, in a very non-Episcopal fashion, William had selected some of the best hits of the rock and roll era for his service.  No Bach or Beethoven for this young man.  No, the cancer had made William more sure of himself at the age of twenty than most people are at eighty, and in the process, he knew how to make a liturgy reflect the spiritual journey of his soul; this wasn’t going to be yet another cookie-cutter liturgy from the pages of yesterday.  No, William’s life was going to make its mark amidst the story of God’s amazing grace.  His own reflection on twenty years would be the narrative of God’s love.

I’d told Jack a band would be playing for the funeral.  Now, in addition to being an early theologian, Jack was also an early musical artist.  His guitar, which had come in a box from China,  probably constructed by another child not much older than my son, had been played so much in his short life that the strings were starting to fray.  The type of child that would listen intently to his mom and dad’s music and then mimic every syllable, he lived for music in his life.  I’m not sure if it started when he fell asleep to Enya night after night or when he heard Van Morrison or U2 for the first time, but whatever the cause, music lived within his little soul.  So, the thought of going to hear a live band in church when he had already endured the organ for three long years was just too much for him to pass by.  He’d already asked me, in the car one day, as usual, why we didn’t hear church music anywhere but church.  He had asked, Is that the only music God can hear? in another of this theological moments.  Knowing that I’d probably messed up the answer once again, I told him we’d go listen to the band rehearse for William’s funeral.  I wasn’t too sure about him attending the service – I figured he wasn’t ready for that – so on the morning of the funeral, I took him over to the parish while the band practiced.  When we walked in, Jack’s face lit up – he loved it.  And so for over an hour, he sat there listening to the band rehearse the music of William’s soul, hits from the rock and roll greats.

But as we left the church, I made a massive mistake.  I took Jack through the tower doorway, crossing the threshold into the columbarium.  And there, right at his eye level on the right side of the tower as we walked through was an open niche – a gaping eight-inch square hole in the side of the tower wall.  Seeing the open niche, Jack innocently asked what it was, and without thinking, without using my eleven years of college and post-graduate education, I replied, That’s where we’ll place William at the end of the service.

Immediately, I could see that this small space was not computing in my son’s head.  His random access memory was whirling in his mind trying desperately to figure it out, and I was kicking myself again and again in my own mental anguish over having said something so foolish to my three-year-old son.

How’s he fitting in there, Daddy?  He was tall.

And again, without using any of my common sense, let alone all that education, I uttered massive mistake number two from my lips.  Well, all that’s left of him are his ashes.

Ashes? Jack replied.  Again, the wheels were turning.  You mean like in the fireplace?

And again, massive mistake number three came from my lips as I explained how the funeral home helped nature along and heated the body until it became dust, as it had been from the beginning of the time.  Ridiculous me; I was actually proud I had said, heated, a more pastoral, priestly, understanding answer this time, I thought.

My son’s education once again exceeded my own.  He immediately burst into tears.  I knelt down by the niche opening, and Jack ran to me in anger, beating me on my chest, screaming, No, Daddy!  No!  No!  No!  No!  And for the next five, maybe ten, minutes I held him in my arms as he wept deeply.  In his own way, Jack was crying for William, but more importantly, for the loss of something innocent in his own soul.  Seeing the small space, realizing that William was really dead, that his body had been reduced to ashes, and that all that was left of this young man would be placed in a wall and closed off forever was just more than Jack could take.  It was more than I could take.  It was more than anyone would fathom.  So we wept together, and even though I tried to talk with him about it later, Jack never really wanted to.  The theologian had seen death and the child within began to contemplate life.

So, three months later on a Wednesday in March the wisdom of the three-year-old came screaming into our world.  We were back in the country Gothic parish, sitting among the oak, stone, and stained glass, reading the service in the Book of Common Prayer.  We had finished the collect of the day, the lessons, the psalm, and the sermon.  We had invited people to a holy Lent, placed ashes upon everyone’s foreheads, and taken Communion.  Just another service in the liturgical cycle of the Christian Church.  Just another step along the journey of the seasons.  Just another year, or so I thought.

But as we ended the service, everyone standing to exit in solemnity, my son issued forth an exclamation to an unsuspecting member of our congregation, a professor from a local college no less.  You’ve got William on your head, Jack exclaimed.  And turning to another, See, you’ve got William on your head, too.  And then to another and another and another.  Everyone heard.  I remember feeling like I should crawl under a rock or into a hole – the priest’s kid is acting up again, I thought.  Great.  More attention.  Exactly what we need.

And then I saw the tear.  The professor was crying.  The lady next to him was crying.  And a tear, one I had not even noticed, was falling down my own cheek.  My son the theologian had made the connection I had not.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  I had merely placed burned palm branches from the prior year’s Passion Sunday on people’s foreheads while Jack had received the ashes of those who had gone before him.  He was making the sacred connection between William and Jesus, between cancer and the cross, between the vessels of the sacred heart of God and the soul’s journey upon the Earth.  My three-year-old son was teaching me, was teaching each of us, what it meant to find new life amidst the darkness.  Jack was telling me the old, old story of God’s redeeming love.

It very well may have been the first time I understood Ash Wednesday.  For you see, the best theologians are three-year-olds.


Preparing For The Journey

Throughout this Lenten journey, the spiritual exercises will provide a way to live into the sacred stories.  As we embark, the first exercise is a simple one, but one that is foundational to the rest.  It’s based on an activity many people love from time to time in life: reflecting through pictures.


  • Photographs from your life (baby photos through current day).


Get out the photos!  Retrieve all the old photographs of your life that you can find.  The old square ones with serrated edges, the ones still sitting in drawers with faded envelopes from the photo shop holding your first 35-mm shots when you were twelve years old.  The school pictures.  The sports team pictures.  The best friend’s candid shot that captured that moment you wanted to forget then but treasure now.  The recent ones you’ll view on your laptop.  Get them all.

After assembling all the photographs in one spot, take the time to look through them.  Remember what your life has been and treasure the good and the bad.  Let the images of your life remind you of all that you have faced, all that you have accomplished, and all that you have done.  See the people you have loved and the people you have abandoned in fear or anger.  Treasure the images.  Let them speak.

Work joyously. Say a prayer before you begin, and if you can, pause to pray again from time to time as a photo brings up a thanksgiving, a lament, or even a confession.  Let the photographs open your life so that you can share the fullness of who you are with God.  If you like, spend several days on this project.  Enjoy it and let it be an outward and visible sign of the graced life that you have lived.

The difficult part of the exercise is the final step.  You’ll need to select at least a hundred or so images that capture your life as you understand it.  You’ll use these photographs several times in the spiritual exercises throughout the book.  If you select images that remind you of your whole life, all the joys and all the pains, the exercises will be much more fruitful.  You will present a more authentic self to yourself and to God as we walk the Lenten journey.  You might consider making photocopies of the photos instead of using originals, especially for old photos.  You could also scan them and run copy sheets from your computer printer.  Black and white or sepia tone is often more dramatic for the exercises than color.  You might print both or a combination.

When you’ve finally narrowed your photos down to the final group, take the time to review them.  Use these Soul Questions to reflect on this beginning exercise.

Soul Questions

  • How did you react to assembling the photos of your life?  Was it a scary exercise or did it immediately energize and excite you?  Why?
  • Were there themes for various times in your life?  Could you see times of happiness?  Sadness?  Celebration?  Defeat?
  • Did the pictures say anything about your relationship with God?  Did a photo or two remind you of any significant spiritual event in your life?  Did you remember a spiritual hero?  Have you ever looked at your life as a reflection of the spiritual journey?
  • Who was missing from the photographs?  Were you surprised not to find various people in the snapshots of your life?
  • Do you see your childhood and earlier years differently after viewing the photos?  Is the memory of them better or worse than you recall?  How does your current life influence how you remember your past?
  • Are the photographs accurate portraits of what was really going on in your life or are they just one dimension of what you were really experiencing?

Thoughts for the Journey

  • Photos are about as close as we ever come to seeing ourselves as others see us.  How do you think you would look if you could observe yourself one day?  What would you see?  Would it surprise you?  What would you want to keep?  What would you want to change?
  • Someone once said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.  Having visited all the photos of your life, are there old “scenes” that repeat themselves or rhyme?  What do they say about your life?
  • Find a photo that captures you.  Don’t look for the “best” photo but the most “poetic” – the one that says, “This is me.”  Why does it bring all of you to mind?  What about it speaks so clearly?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: