Saturday, March 6, 2010

What Lurks Behind the Altar

Recently our church was renovated. Marble walls and flooring were installed on and around the altar. An artist was commissioned to create a custom crucifix to reflect our parish name, Holy Spirit. Jesus is shown pushing up against the nails in his feet and hands to receive his last breath on the cross. He is looking toward heaven. It is quite remarkable and very moving. Although I’m a convert I always find the image of Christ on the cross inspirational, comforting and convicting. I feel a bit disconnected in churches that don’t have one over the altar.

The marble panels provide a beautiful canvas to reflect light. During Advent and Christmas, the altar lined with pine trees adorned simply with white lights: the marble walls sparkled. With the lights dimmed Christmas Eve, the effect was peaceful and magnificent, a fitting setting for the liturgy. The altar seemed quite stark after the season ended, but no one in the parish was prepared for the shadow that would be cast during Lent.

In years past, the front of the altar has been decorated with rocks and clay pots, symbols of our Lenten journey in the desert. This year there were no pots to be found. A large vase with long, thin, wavy branches and a crude cross made of sticks was the sole adornment. Honestly, it's a bit too artsy for me. I miss the sand, and the earthen vessels. I’m a pretty literal gal when it comes to religious art. But the vase was fine, until the spot lights were turned on.

Somehow one very innocent looking branch cast a shadow. It bobbed and swayed under the heating vent, as if it were a snake – a cobra, poised to strike at the crucifix. It was the only branch that cast a shadow, and it didn’t matter what time of day it was, as soon as the light hit it, it came to life. Ominous doesn’t really do justice to the feeling the image evoked. Parishioners began to complain, the school children whispered during weekday mass, and eventually someone told the priest and the branch was adjusted. It’s still in the vase, but with repositioning we can’t see the shadow of the serpent anymore. The change was so subtle, but the effect dramatic.

The message of the shadow was a good one for Lent, one Jesus emphasized in the parable of the “Sower and the Seed”, 

"The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. "Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.  Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great." As He said these things, He would call out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Luke 8:5-8

Lent is a time to cultivate the soil, to do what we can to remove the rocks and weeds. We come to the altar to receive Christ, but temptation is always lurking around the corner to snatch it away. Our hearts must be nourished, watered with the truth of God’s word and His presence in our lives. We need to be careful with the gift we have received. In order to grow, we need to stay in the light, so temptations aren’t disguised by a simple repositioning of our perspective.

Some people were really upset about the shadow, but I saw it as a gift; a message. I am thankful this Lenten season for the light God provides, and I pray to have the courage to remain focused as I pass by shadows along the way. As much as I appreciated the message of the shadow, it would be just fine with me if they brought back the rocks and the sand next year. As an altar decoration it might lack the drama, but for inspiration, I could always stub my toe.

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