Ash Wednesday: Living in Shades of Grey

Ash Wednesday 2021 Reflection


John 8:1-11
Psalm 51

My reflection for Ash Wednesday is focussing on John 8:2-11 and this amazing piece of art painted by Peter the Bruegel in 1565. It is entitled ‘Christ and the Women Taken in Adultery.’ This Gospel story has been painted by many others – but none quite like Bruegel.

Courtauld Gallery, London

What is striking is that this panel (which hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London) is painted in different shades of grey. Bruegel used the greys to 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?

Oh the 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. Those closer to the front are much m ore exposed, lighter – than those at the back. Some are turning away, wanting to stay hidden, unexposed.

I have been wondering about the two men on the right – both very exposed – but notice their hands – one has his hands hidden under his cloak and the other’s hands are in darkness. Their faces and mouths might say one thing – maybe 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.

But in this story – it is not Jesus 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. He does not condemn her as the crowd did. She doesn’t get off the hook 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 – he 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. Psalm 51 is David’s confession and anticipation of forgiveness.

Despite David’s actions, the response to the uncovering of sin is exemplary: I have sinned against the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13). In Psalm 51 – David’s first request is for mercy – David knows that God is generous, is merciful and whose love is steadfast. God is abundant in all of those things. Then 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. This has traditionally been played out in various fasting rituals that some Christians engage in. Historically in the church this meant meat, dairy, eggs, – the staples of life – rather than the ‘luxuries’ of sugar, caffeine, alcohol or the evils of fatty fizzy drinks and Facebook.

The overall point of the exercise is to draw nearer to God. 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 don’t 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 – and acknowledge where and when we have been wrong, been sinful. And then have to do something about it. But apologising is only half of the process. Repentance literally means to turn in the other direction and committing to change. It is only through Christ and being in Christ that death and sin are defeated – that is the lighter news.

But what if good was to come from the times spent in the dust and ashes?

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. Then – at the same time – we can begin to raise our gaze to 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 – there is nothing that He wants more from you than to be close to you.