As Lent draws to a close, I think back to last year’s Good Friday, which I spent in a small town on the edge of Belize. All morning, before the Good Friday church ceremonies, I helped members of the community create alfombras, traditional sawdust carpets.
With plastic spoons, we spread vibrantly dyed sawdust in the various sections of cardboard stencils. Sometimes little children would help, and accidentally mix up the colors. After each section had been carefully filled, we lifted the cardboard, revealing the lovely designs underneath. It was like a color-by-numbers on a grand scale.
By the afternoon, these vivid sawdust carpets covered the entire church steps and the surrounding streets. Some were floral patterns while some included words or religious images, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We used hoses to lightly spray down the sawdust, guarding the specks from blowing away in the wind. Later that day, not long after our work finished, religious processions trampled over the careful images, leaving behind only a blurred, incoherent trail of multi-colored dust.
The paradoxical nature of our Good Friday activity struck my soul. For Christians, Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of God-made-man: a day one might readily shroud oneself in black. Yet the sawdust carpets were so full of color: bright pink, yellow, orange, teal, and purple. This seeming impropriety made manifest the delicate interaction between dark and light, death and life.
The sawdust carpets strikingly represented the fleeting nature of our experiences of beauty, as well. While hours were spent creating the beautiful pictures, they were destroyed in mere moments. Even before the altar servers and priests led the procession, dogs scampered across the sawdust, and wind blurred some of the flowers.
We desire our creations to last, and spend our lifetimes building these creations up, whether they be our careers, children, or other passions. We may take deep delight in doing so, seeing that creations—ours and those found in nature—are intensely beautiful.
The poems of the Russian writer Osip Mandelstam, who lived through the turmoil of the Soviet Union in the early 20th century, reflect a deep awareness of the power of creation. In one of his poems, he describes:
And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.
Realizing the full beauty of a pear blossoming or a bird chirping can cause us to be extremely conscious of living, its inherent goodness, and the fact that something in man is opposed to death. We become awakened to our desire for more. Mandelstam’s verse parallels the final line from Rainer Marie Rilke’s poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” After describing the beauty of a statue of Apollo, Rilke concludes:
…for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Beauty calls to change, calls to more. If that call to transcendence is a mere lie and cannot be answered, the tragedy would be unbearable. Those who deeply feel the power of beauty, yet cannot link it to Being, may find themselves living in the shadow of that tragedy. If the beauty that we can create or find in creation is our ultimate end, the sweet sadness of it dying away may overwhelm us. Mandelstam concludes his poem as follows:
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.
Human beauty fades and natural beauty passes away, just like the sawdust carpets on Good Friday in Belize. If no masterpiece lasts, and all beauty that we love simply dies, is there anything lastingly true and beautiful? The commonality of our deep desire that beauty in all its perfection does in fact exist and is lasting, despite our human experience of material corruption, gives hope that there is enduring splendor.
And so human creation rightly continues, even on Good Friday, prophesizing a resurrection of beauty that can die.
These two paradoxes—bright colors on a dark day and beauty longing to last but passing away—have remained. Perhaps last year’s Good Friday offers new lenses through which to perceive Lent and Holy Week: not as places of darkness, but as places for prophecy to dip into the colors of human longing, preparing the canvas for an eternal creative work.