Ash Wednesday: Shades of Grey

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2024
St Nicholas – 10:00 am P&P
Emmanuel – 7:30 pm P&P

Psalm 51:1-18
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
John 8:1-11

This print is going to be the focus of my reflection today. It was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565 and now hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London. It is entitled ‘Christ and the Women Taken in Adultery.’ This Gospel story has been painted by many others but none quite like Bruegel. The most striking feature is that Bruegel painted it in different shades of grey. The greys represent the human response to sin and to point out the hypocrisy and the virtue of mercy that this Gospel story highlights so well.

At the centre of this picture and in the most amount of light is Jesus. He is kneeling and writing in Dutch. Jesus is the best lit and most exposed person in this picture.

The woman has literally been dragged from an adulterer’s bed and her sin has been announced to all. This was an offence punishable by death according to the law of Moses. Where was the man she was adultering with? So much humiliation. Maybe you have been caught out publicly for something you did and can relate to this woman. The woman is intently watching Jesus with a slightly blank expression. She is not looking at the crowd; but she is not looking directly down either. Her left ear is slightly cocked towards the crowd; maybe listening to what people are saying to her or about her.

The crowd, according to Bruegel, are showing the human reaction to being confronted with sin. The men closer to the front are much more exposed, a lighter grey than those at the back. Some are turning away, wanting to stay hidden, unexposed. The two men on the right are very exposed but notice their hands. One has his hands hidden under his cloak and the other’s hands are darker than the rest of his body. Their faces and mouths might say one thing yet their hands are telling another story.

Every person in this picture except for Jesus is a sinner. Everyone here this morning/tonight is a sinner as well. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story for any of us! If you could place yourself in this picture where would you put yourself? Serious question!

Many people fear being ‘found out’ whether for having done something wrong or by not being the person they present to the world. Some people have a view of God as being out to get them or expose them for their sins. God is the angry Father just waiting for a mistake to be made. In this story Jesus is not who does the exposing but the scribes and Pharisees. He cares for this woman, protects her from death and puts her on a new path. Jesus does not condemn her as the crowd did. She does not get off the hook either as she is told to ‘Go and sin no more.’ She had some work to do.

Tom Wright says this about her forgiveness: “If she has been forgiven, if she’s been rescued from imminent death she must live by that forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. Being forgiven doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t matter. On the contrary: forgiveness means that sin does matter but that God is choosing to set it aside.”
The same is true for us, if we have been forgiven then we must live by that forgiveness.

Psalm 51 is known as a ‘penitential psalm’; it is an extended confession of sin and an anticipation of new life grounded in divine forgiveness. It was written by David during his tragic downfall as he had yielded to temptation and committed adultery with Bathsheba. He then tried to cover up what he did with lies, deceit and eventually murder. David’s sin was exposed to him by the prophet Nathan.
Despite David’s actions, the response to the uncovering of sin is exemplary: I have sinned against the Lord. David’s first request is for mercy. He knows that God is generous, merciful and that His love is steadfast. David’s confession goes on for the first 9 verses. David comes to know that God desires truth and wisdom and this is where David begins to see a new beginning beyond his failure.

By verse 10 the psalm moves from confession to petitions addressed to the God of mercy and steadfast love. This is an act of hope for a renewed and restored relationship with God. Words like, ‘create in me, put, do not cast, do not take, restore, sustain.’ David is anticipating a clean heart, a new and right spirit.
We can all have this. A clean heart and a new and right spirit. But we have to do some work first.

Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect and pursue forgiveness of our sins. As Christians, the bigger issue is that we let things interfere in our relationship with Christ. It might seem small or insignificant but if we do not tend to these things or issues they can blow up at an exponential rate. Ash Wednesday offers the chance to sit down in the ashes in some form of repentance to address our sin and brokenness. Sit down before you fall down. As we have seen from both the Gospel and the Psalms sin gets exposed. Sometimes rather publicly.

To come to a place of repentance is no small feat and is not for the faint of heart. It takes real courage to review ourselves and our actions, to acknowledge where and when we have been wrong, and been sinful. Repentance literally means to turn in the other direction and commit to change. It is only through Christ and being in Christ that death and sin are defeated.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it can lead us to both lower our gaze to that which in us needs refocusing and correcting. At the same time we can begin to raise our gaze on the dazzling beauty and light of Christ. There is no need to be ashamed of those things that need to be ashed out. Sit with them for a while and let them go. Use this season of Lent to trade them in for the generous mercy and steadfast love that God has for you.

Author: Sue Lepp

I am currently the Lead Chaplain of Gatwick Airport and the Priest-in-Charge of Charlwood St Nicholas and Sidlow Bridge Emmanuel in the Diocese of Southwark. I served my curacy in the Parish of Langley Marish and trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Former Nurse in both Canada and the UK. Specialised in Palliative Care, Gynaecology-Oncology and a bit of Orthopaedics (just to keep me travelling). Worked as a MacMillan Nurse Specialist in a few specialities in London.

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