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Painting the Lenten Journey

Giving up sweets, deleting social media accounts, vowing to exercise more—these are trendy Lenten practices to adopt. Kicking off the season with a paintbrush and scrap pieces of fabric in hand? That one might be less familiar.

Smocking up to get your hands messy with paint and glue may not be your go-to spiritual practice. But for a few members of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, diving deep into the creative layers of Lent is exactly how they chose to enter the season.

Over the course of a weekend-long worship arts retreat, a small team of Covenant members gathered together to plan, design, and execute two large, painted banners to install during Lent. The arts team, comprised of people of all ages, was not a gathering of professional artists. In fact, many members expressed initial insecurities about their artistic abilities and wondered how to contribute to the project. “I’m no painter . . . I don’t want to mess it up,” some of them said. But there were no mistakes to make, no way to fail. All were invited to share in the creative process, and the final product was the work of everyone’s hands.

The materials used to create this Lenten artwork included

  • primed canvas from Dick Blick Art Materials (dickblick.com)
  • acrylic paint
  • assorted scrap fabric

With limited time, few but mighty contributors, and a meager budget for materials, the team welcomed the uncertainty of an organic creative process, allowing their unique perspectives and talents to shape and color the art piece. By the end of the weekend, the previously blank canvases were filled with rich imagery detailing the team’s interpretation of their Lenten journey together.

Based on imagery from Psalms selected by Covenant to guide their worship in the five Sundays leading up to Easter, the banners tell the Lenten story, but also point to the greater narrative of God’s redemption and light.

So how, exactly, did a team of regular church members accomplish such a feat? Here’s an outline of the creative process from start to finish.

Diving In

The weekend began with a Friday night envisioning session. With wet clay, pastel sticks, and sketch paper close by to keep the creative juices flowing, the team investigated the liturgical themes of Lent.

For the early church, Lent was often the time when catechumens repented of their sins and prepared to be baptized and welcomed into the church. Commencing with Ash Wednesday, the 40 days of Lent can be traced as a liturgical movement from ashes to the baptismal font. The Lenten pilgrimage, therefore, might be seen as one beginning with ashes and barrenness and ending with the healing and abundant waters of baptism. Though trapped by our mortality, we are propelled toward a destination of resurrection and new birth.

Discussing themes of penitence, humility, and brokenness, the team discerned that though Lent is a season focused on individual discipline and introversion, we embark upon our Lenten journey as a community. Ultimately, Lent is a time for reconciling our relationships with God, with one another, and with all of creation. The art, then, would be a communal effort and would incorporate visual themes of community.

As the team discussed and inquired, the motif of “journeying” emerged and began to take shape.

Visualizing the Text

With the texts laid out before them, the team parsed the language of the psalms (Ps. 120, 125, 129, 131, and 133) chosen for the five Sundays in Lent, probing them for visual possibilities. Many of the psalms, composed as “ascent” hymns sung during the trek to Mt. Zion, feature the dangers and triumphs of spiritual pilgrimage. Psalm 125 compares trust in God to the steadfast, immovability of Mt. Zion. Just as the mountains hug and surround Jerusalem, God encompasses and protects God’s people in an unyielding embrace. Psalm 133 celebrates the extravagant joy of people joining in harmony—it is like precious oil to the head, or like dew that quenches the rugged hills of Zion.

Psalms 120 and 129 speak to harrowing legs of the journey of faith when we are tormented by enemies and slanderers. Psalm 129 boasts in God’s deliverance from oppressors who plow deep furrows along the backs of their victims; the wicked are like grass in shallow ground that withers before it grows. Psalm 131 whispers for a calm and quiet heart like a weaned child rocked in her mother’s arms.

Combing through the inventory of visuals, the team determined which images best illuminated the broader Lenten themes and how they might be incorporated into a larger composition. As they worked, the ancient psalmists’ words shifted into visual poetry.

Though Lent is a season focused on individual discipline and introversion, we embark upon our Lenten journey as a community.

Creating in Community

On Saturday morning of the retreat, members huddled around a visioning board comprised of image print-outs, sketches, and ideas. One of the members, a professional architect, took the lead in sketching a plan. As others offered input, sometimes stumbling to match words with the nonverbal concepts in their heads, the architect sketched options for compositions and color schemes, visually translating the suggestions that burst forth from the group.

After deliberating, the team settled on a final composition: depicting a landscape of mountains and water, the banners would convey the wide arc of a pilgrim’s journey, beginning with the treacherous trek through darkness and wickedness and ending with abundant waters and light. Images from the psalms would appear throughout the landscape.

With the blank canvases spread out on tables and the materials all neatly in place, it was time to transpose all of the planning and ideas into tangible art. After another member, a graphic artist, sketched an outline of the composition onto the canvases, everyone else dove in, filling designated sections with paint and color. Others began cutting strips of scrap fabric, delicately placing them onto the canvas to add texture and definition. With every brushstroke, the group gained confidence and momentum. The creative energy was magnetic. Members shifted around the canvases, embellishing each section of the banners with their own unique additions. By the end of the afternoon, the canvases were brimming with paint and texture, and the composition was complete.

Once dry, the banners were installed along the walls of the worship space, serving as visual proclamation for worship throughout Lent. Worshipers were not only invited to hear, read, and sing the psalms, they were also invited to see them. The liturgical landscape illuminated the church’s 40-day journey through Lent, helping them navigate the way to the empty tomb.

Verbalizing the Visual

We developed the following statement to help other members of the congregation enter into the Lenten art.

“Within the landscape of purple mountains, a path appears among the dried and withered grasses where the wicked plow their plowshares and reap no harvest. The path meanders through the ‘way of the wicked’ (Ps. 125) and ventures up to the city on a hill. Jerusalem sits safeguarded and embraced by Mt. Zion and surrounding peaks, yet it is not the final destination. The ‘dew of Mt. Hermon’ (Ps. 133) shrouds the mountain peaks in glistening yet darkening clouds, pushing the travelers to journey on toward the light breaking out along the horizon in the east.

“The path opens to blue waters rippling with yellow light. Some figures step into the waves, some gather near the shore, while others can be spotted entering the journey toward Jerusalem. The figures represent the many stages of the Lenten journey. We begin with dust and ashes, humbling ourselves before God. We admit that at times we all travel the way of the wicked, plowing fields that wither and produce no harvest. We confess the brokenness of our world, naming our enemies who plow furrows into our backs and whose tongues pierce us like sharp arrows and burning coals. As we repent, we turn away from paths of destruction and despair to a new way. We enter God’s courts with singing, wrapped in God’s providential care. Just as mountains surround Jerusalem or a mother cradles her weaned child, God embraces and protects us.

“But our journey does not end at the safety of Jerusalem’s gates. We are called to go out into the world, seeking God’s healing for ourselves and for others. The figures gather on the sandy shores to be washed in God’s healing waters of baptism. Basking in God’s light, the figures receive the promise of our baptism: though we come from dust and return to dust, we are washed clean and made new.

“God promises us a new creation in which all will be restored. Only then will our journeys be complete. Until then, we walk the path of faith, orienting our lives to God’s redeeming light.”