The heart of the matter.
What’s the heart of the matter to you…about today? About life? The psalm gets right to it in our opening text of Holy Scripture tonight, right to the core of just what we are and whose we are: “For you know well how we are formed; you remember that we are but dust.”And in case those words don’t sink in, we’re all going to be wearing some dust on our foreheads in just a few minutes.
|"Pillars of Creation" nebulae (Hubble telescope image)|
That’s really the “heart of the matter,” isn’t it? Despite all the amazing things we humans do and are capable of doing—our amazing progress in medicine and technology, our successes in creating just and free societies, our capability to create beautiful, lasting works of art and music—we are but dust. The ancient Hebrews knew long ago from their stories of Adam and Eve being breathed up from the mud what has taken us years of astrophysics to prove: the atoms of our bodies are really just reorganized and reconstituted stardust, the same stuff that the rest of the universe is made out of.
Yet, miraculously and mysteriously, life has been breathed into us, and for a while we exist. For a while we are given this chance to learn and grow and love, make decisions that affect others’ lives—sometimes disastrously—before we all return to that same elemental material. “For you know well how we are formed; you remember that we are but dust.”
Yes, the heart of the matter of life is that we are the creature, the created, and the Lord is the Creator. The heart of the matter is that because we are the created, we are not eternal. And for as long as we’ve been around, we have been prone to deny this fact or ignore it altogether. Forgetting that we are someone’s prized creation, we either disregard our beauty and our power—this heritage of our Divine’s image—or, even worse, we idolize them. We have been given this chance to fashion from our atoms lives that reflect the goodness of our Creator, and we squander it at just about every turn, oblivious as to whose we are. This corrupts us from within, and there’s nothing we ourselves can do about it.
Last night my six-year-old asked, out of the blue, “Is Ash Wednesday a hump day?” Yes, my child, I thought…and what a hump to get over. It is the hump day of the year, for today we are forced to look eye to eye with our mortality and our brokenness. Ash Wednesday and Lenten disciplines once again present the struggle with what it means to be made, to be designed for something other than our own glorification. They cause us to pause and consider that fundamental heart of the matter, and if we get over that sobering hump, there is hope at the end.
For there is another matter, of course, and it has a heart, too. It has to do with the Creator’s unexpected answer to our dusty, dirty condition. It the matter about God’s boundless mercy, his desire through Jesus, his Son, to live as we do, to encounter the brokenness we know. It is the heart of a God who is full of compassion, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The psalmist, along with the witness of the ancient Hebrews, would have us know that this is the primary quality of this God who has formed us from dust: steadfast love. Of all that might be said of God this one thing must be central: God’s heart of tenderness towards us wins out over any anger and disappointment God feels about us.
|"The Crucifixion" Leon Bonnat|
So, just as we tonight receive reminder that we are undeniably mortal and corruptible, we also receive reminder that God is undeniably forgiving and compassionate. The cross of Jesus is the other heart of the matter which we confront on this hump day of all hump days…that God has not dealt with us according to our sins, and has not repaid us according to our iniquities. Instead, Jesus has borne in his body—which is formed of the same stardust as we are—the full result of our waywardness and brokenness. He suffers, so that we may thrive. He dies, so that we may live.
That’s the tension that lies at the center of Christian life, on the one hand, our failure, our dustiness, and on the other hand, God’s prevailing perfection for us in Jesus Christ; on the one hand, our inability—down to our very bones—to respond on our own to God’s grace and goodness, and on the other, God’s will to “make our bones strong,” as the prophet Isaiah says, to make us like “springs…whose waters never fail.”
Practices of faith are intended to support us in this tension throughout the year, but Lent has always been set aside by the church as a specific time for focusing on the cross, and how sacrifice in the manner of Christ heals us and empowers us to love the world. For example, the discipline of giving from our own finances to charity is not merely a way to deny materialistic impulses for ourselves, but a way to contribute in a real way to Christ’s healing of the world. Again, if I were to take on a discipline of increased prayer and worship attendance, this would not only become a way for me to take time away from other personal endeavors that lead me away from God, but they would also have the benefit of developing my communication with God and aligning my life with whatever Christ’s compassion is doing in the world. And the act of fasting is not simply a way of reminding ourselves of the control our passions can have over our bodies, but a way to hand over for the betterment of creation resources that we often horde for ourselves. The three particular disciplines of faith that Jesus mentions to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, when taken to heart the right way, always help us keep in mind both our need for God’s mercy and the fact that God is already giving it.
For many people throughout the centuries, holding these two matters in tension has led to profound artistic and creative expressions. Using that quality of creativity that God has bestowed on us, people have sought to articulate in some original way what God’s steadfast love in Jesus means for them and the world. Perhaps you’ve seen a painting of the crucifixion that draws your attention to a particular feature or character. Some have chiseled for hours at marble or granite or wood into the shape of a human figure with a surface as smooth as human skin and with facial expressions that look as real as ours. Others have composed works of poetry or moving songs that re-interpret or even quote the words of Scripture. Maybe you have a hymn that sums up your own reaction to the cross.
On Wednesdays this Lent members of the staff will offer for you something of that discipline: a series of meditations on some of these artistic creations. Our speakers will lead us through several meditations and even demonstrations based on examples of Christian art that strike at the heart of the matter: on the cross of Christ, our dust is given new life.
That being said, there is nothing particularly aesthetic or beautiful about the real cross, the real death of our Lord. Safe to say that last thing anyone was thinking as our Lord gave up his life is how the lighting looked, or what particular color palette was being used. It was a gory, desperate scene. Nevertheless, as the years have unfolded since, the faithful have been drawn to express what that event means by giving glory to God through stunning art and music. In each we see or hear both the horror of human loss and tragedy, and also the beauty of a God’s steadfast love. In each we will be offered a chance to come to terms with our own human fragility, but also respond to the compassion of a God who knows well how we are formed. Whether sound waves coming from guitar strings, light shining through glass, words leaping from a page…they will be examples of matter—stuff of the universe—arranged to show that on the cross we are saved.
They will be arranged to display, that is, the heart of the matter: that we matter to God’s heart.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.