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Dirt at the Foot of the Cross: Using common materials to communicate the themes of Lent

During the 1990 Lenten season at Hessel Park Church in Champaign, Illinois, a local artist, Linda Vredeveld, demonstrated that liturgical art can be as unassuming as a pile of dirt at the foot of a cross. She chose common materials such as dirt, light cloth, and twigs and gave them new meaning in the worship setting.

Although Vredeveld altered the materials and their arrangement weekly, she kept her artistic statement simple and beautiful throughout the season. "As a kid," she explained, "I remember having a hard time relating to all of the symbols used in worship . .. banners that had to be explained in the bulletin. So I wanted to use real materials and give Lent meaning on an emotional level."

Sunday 1

The first Sunday in Lent the congregation was greeted with a symmetrical, box-like cross colored with charcoal dust and about a three-gallon-sized pile of black dirt in the middle of the cement floor. The cross was easy enough to understand. It had a contemplative quality, making a quiet statement that hinted at the confession and reflection we would take part in during the weeks ahead. The dirt, however, posed a bit of a mystery. Was it a pile of sin?

Vredeveld commented on the congregation's reactions to that first week: "Jack (Rev. Reiffer) started people thinking about the dirt by explaining that he wasn't going to talk about it a lot. He just wanted people to look at it and meditate on it. And they did. A lot of people approached me looking for answers: To me it means this—is that right?"

Vredeveld was pleased that Reiffer did not limit her art by trying to explain it.

Sunday 2

On the second Sunday the dirt was gone. It had been replaced with broken branches woven into a giant circle on the floor. A few weeks prior to this service, Champaign-Urbana had been hit with an ice storm and declared a disaster area. The trees had suffered severe damage. Vredeveld gathered up some of those broken tree branches and fashioned them into a crown of thorns.

For her, this crown represented a general theme relating to Christ's death, and Reiffer incorporated it symbolically into the morning sermon. He spoke of the serpent in the wilderness lifted on the pole as a vaccination against sin, a redemption of the disease itself experienced by the children of Israel. And these twigs, a remnant of the recent pain and hardship endured by the Champaign-Urbana residents, were skillfully arranged into a symbol of the suffering Christ who would ultimately save his people from sin.

Sunday 3

The third Sunday in Lent the Scripture passage and sermon dealt with the story of the woman at the well. Vredeveld added ripples of light blue cloth to the center of the "crown of thorns," transforming it into a simple, visual image of a well. She explained "I thought about using water, but I couldn't figure out a practical way to hold it. Then I realized that what I really wanted was the color of water, so I used a shimmery cloth instead."

Sunday 4

On the fourth Sunday, that same water-colored cloth became a metaphor for the living water pouring out of the pulpit, from where the living Word is spoken. And the pile of dirt was back—this time on the communion table—with a large candle rising out of it. In the service and sermon that morning, we heard references to light coming out of darkness and to the mud Jesus used to open the blind man's eyes. And each of these references was deepened by the presence of Vredeveld's simple, earthy materials.

Sunday 5

On Sunday 5, the broken branches from the ice storm were delicately balanced in the shape of a campfire. The broken tree limbs were rising up like the resurrected body of Lazarus from that week's Scripture passage. And Reiffer's sermon focused on the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel.

The service was well-orchestrated visually and musically: the congregation softly sang the old spiritual "Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones" while Reiffer recited the story of Ezekiel—and before him stood a skeleton of twigs.

Sunday 6

The sixth Sunday in Lent, Palm Sunday, the congregation found a tall, blood-red curtain covering the cross on the wall. The children processed in and laid palm branches at its hem.

It was a relief to finally see the cross covered and to think about Christ the King. Vredeveld commented on her discussion with some of the children. "It was interesting that a number of children picked up on things. I talked to a couple of fifth graders about the red curtain. I had hung it in two panels, and they asked if it was like the curtain that was torn open during the crucifixion."

Maundy Thursday

For the Maundy Thursday communion service, Vrede-veld rearranged the sanctuary, using a long table with candles running down its middle. As the sun began to go down, the table was reflected in the enormous windows which face the street, creating the illusion of a much longer table. Reiffer alluded to the openness of the Lord's table. It extended out into the darkness where there were extra seats available to the growing kingdom of God.

Easter Vigil

Finally, at the conclusion of a special Easter vigil service, the red curtain was pulled back to reveal the drawing of a huge hand of God, palm up, open and receptive. About the choice of this last, basic symbol, Vredeveld said, "The hand has become one of the themes in my work lately. When I started this drawing I planned to depict the hands raised, uplifted. Hands reaching up seemed an appropriate symbol for the joy of the resurrection.

"But as I worked, I began envisioning instead the hand of God reaching down. The hand is like a replacement for the human figure. It's like a whole person. So it became one, huge hand representing God."

In his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald represents God through the bespectacled eyes of ophthalmologist T.J. Eckleburg on a weather-worn billboard. Fitzgerald's is a frightening personification of God looking down on the sins of humankind. In contrast, Vredeveld's open hand portrays an approachable, loving God, a God who wants to comfort his people and hold them in the palm of his hand.

Excerpt
LENTEN SERVICE
THEN THEY CRIED TO THE LORD

A service based on Psalm 107

This service, prepared for the fourth Sunday in Lent, was submitted by Dick Stravers, pastor of the West Park Christian Reformed Church in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote, "As you will see, the entire morning order was based on Psalm 107.1 fell in love with that psalm while convalescing from surgery a year ago. Every verse appears in order except verse 42. Six readers were used. The service was well received." The setting of Psalm 107 that was sung in this service covers the first nine verses and appeared in the 1959/1976 editions of the Psalter Hymnal. The 1987 Psalter Hymnal #107 covers the entire psalm in six stanzas; if you choose to use that version, sing stanzas 1 and 6 at the beginning of the service, and stanzas 2-5 after the sermon.

Prelude: Through Adam's Fall (Prelude for Lent) Buxtehude

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his love endures forever.

Let the redeemed of the Lord say this—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.

Hymn: Praise the Lord, for He Is Good [1959 PsH 212:1,5]

Grace to you and peace...

Amen

Reader 1: Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.

Reader 2: Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains, for they had rebelled against the words of God and despised the counsel of the Most High. So He subjected them to bitter labor; they stumbled, and there was no one to help.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble.

Reader 3: Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble.

Reader 4: Others went out to the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits' end.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.

Reader 5: God turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.

Reader 6: Their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity, and sorrow; he who pours contempt on nobles made them wander in a trackless waste.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.

Sermon: Then They Cried Out to the LORD

Prayer of Supplication

Hymn: Praise the Lord, for He Is Good [1959 PsH 212:2-4]

Reader 1: He delivered them from their distress and led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things

Reader 2: He saved them from their distress and brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind, for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.

Reader 3: He saved them from their distress and sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.

Reader 4: He brought them out of their distress and stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind. Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.

Reader 5: God turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs; there he brought the hungry to live, and they founded a city where they could settle. They sowed fields and planted vineyards that yielded a fruitful harvest; He blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased, and he did not let their herds diminish.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.

Reader 6: He lifted the needy out of their affliction and increased their families like flocks.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind. Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.

Hymn: "Praise the Lord! Sing Hallelujah'." [1987 PsH 146]

Apostles Creed

A Prayer of Thanks

Psalm of Praise: "Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He" [1987 PsH 182]

Offering of Gifts

Doxology

Offertory Prayer

Response: Whoever is wise, let them heed all these things and consider the great love of the Lord.

Hymn: Forever I Will Sing of Your Great Love, O Lord [1987 PsH 89:1,2,8]

Benediction

Postlude: Psalm 107

Artist Linda Vredeveld designed the artwork above while a member of Hessel Park Church. She now lives in Mason, Michigan, and works at Lansing Community College.