Journey to the cross
A new ritual of Ash Wednesday at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohioby Karen Ruth Rich
Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Those words, with their intimation of mortality, are repeated over and over during a traditional Ash Wednesday service—the worship ritual that launches the repentance journey from Lent to Easter.
The mosaic cross by Mark Nafziger in the sanctuary at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio. Photo provided,
Rituals help us live out the gospel of Jesus Christ and, more importantly, become an important part of our community’s memory. One of the rituals that has become important to our congregation, Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, is Ash Wednesday. Our children and youth participate with the adults in this beginning ritual of Lent. In February 2010, we expanded on the traditional imposition of ashes to create a new and meaningful experience.
The Lenten planning committee—Cliff Brubaker, Mark Nafziger and I—chose to use the suggested theme “Holding On/Letting Go” from Leader magazine. Cliff had just joined the staff at Zion as an interim pastor, but he quickly found he was working with a planning committee that was not content to go with a simple theme but needed to expand and create its own slant to it.
Cliff, who had served at several churches as a transitional and interim pastor, had participated in and observed Ash Wednesday services but had not led one. This also happened to be the first service he led at Zion.
Mark, a self-employed potter and owner of Brush Creek Pottery at Sauder Village in Archbold, added the drama and visual elements to the planning. “Because of my profession, some of my favorite passages in the Bible are about clay and potters,” he says.
The mosaic cross in the sanctuary at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio. Photo provided.
Mark was intrigued with the idea of persistence and failure. “When you make pots, your failures are physical and always there to remind you of the work you’ve put into them. Over the years I had accumulated many reject pots. Something in the human spirit makes us keep trying to do better—to make something out of failure. What could I do to transform these flawed pots into something beautiful?”
Mark had been thinking about this for years before he approached the pastors and me with his idea about doing something with these pots during Lent. But things clicked when he heard about the “Holding On/Letting Go” theme for Lent.
As people arrived at the Ash Wednesday service, they encountered several tables of mugs, bowls and other small pots that Mark had created. Several young people directed each person to take a pot into the sanctuary with them. People took their time looking at each pot and carefully chose the ones they liked best.
To the uneducated, unprofessional observers, these pots looked fine—functional and beautiful. However, they were flawed seconds that Mark didn’t want to sell. In the sanctuary, the Communion table in front held several large, highly decorated and beautifully displayed plates, vases and jars created by Mark. From a distance, they also looked flawless.
Cliff began the service by introducing the theme of holding on to the things that matter the most—our relationship with and our need for God—and letting go of the things that we tend to hold onto: our fears, our possessions, our sins.
After his introductory comments and prayer, Cliff picked up one of the large pots from the table and without warning the congregation, dropped it into a barrel and shattered it. (A cement block in the bottom of the barrel ensured it would shatter.) Six different people came up front to read a confession and then break another of the large pieces in the barrel. It soon dawned on the congregation that the pots they held in their hands and had so carefully chosen would also be broken.
Cliff says: “As I watched Mark set out all the pots, I thought about how much I loved and appreciated his craft. I knew what we were going to do, and it almost made me angry.” Mark took Cliff down the table and told him the stories of some of the pots and what went wrong with them. “We can’t break these beautiful pots,” Cliff said. “How many hours are in these pots, Mark?”
Mark said: “You can’t think about that. I got rid of my attachment to these pots a long time ago. They didn’t meet my standards. They fell short of my expectations.”
Cliff broke a pot before the service began to test it. “I remember trying to balance the emotions of the moment and the drama of it all,” he says, “not wanting to overdramatize it so that it took away from the meaning.”
As Cliff broke that first pot during the service, an audible gasp came from the congregation. As the readers broke their pieces, many of them grimaced. Then Cliff invited the congregation to come forward to let go of their pots and receive the ashes of repentance on their foreheads or their hands.
Some people let go by throwing their pots onto the cement block. Others gingerly dropped theirs, hoping they wouldn’t break. Many in the congregation found it difficult to break something functional that they could have taken home to use. The sounds of pottery breaking over and over became gut-wrenching.
Mark found the experience much more difficult than he had anticipated. “Watching people’s expressions and hearing the sounds affected me deeply,” he says. “I watched the expectations and hopes I had for these pieces being broken. When the people in the congregation let go of their pots, they were experiencing a letting go of something they physically held for only a few minutes. For me, it was letting go of a lot of time and effort—almost letting go of pieces of myself. I went into it only thinking about how it would create a neat effect, but it became much more.”
“We were acting out and living a parable,” says Cliff, “and we were beginning a journey with no outcome assured. We didn’t know where this would end up, but we were willing to go.”
Mark says that “one of the readers who broke one of the large pots was my friend Carl Yoder. Carl always held a genuine interest and appreciation for my work. He always tried to come to my shows and would occasionally buy my pots, so it was difficult for him to intentionally break one of them. But it turned out to be moving for him. And since then, the congregation experienced another form of letting go when Carl died [last] October.”
The journey through Lent began with a barrel full of broken pottery. We moved the barrel up onto the altar, and in a series of skits we added to the trash pile. Every Sunday morning service opened with a skit taking place in Mark’s pottery shop. On that first Sunday of Lent, Mark explained to Jeremiah and his family about the clay he uses to make pots—that certain kinds of clay add different elements to the work.
In subsequent skits, Jeremiah and his friend Baruch visited the pottery shop, and each Sunday a different lesson used the process as metaphor. For example, one Sunday Mark formed a vase on his potter’s wheel as the children watched and then smashed it because it did not meet his expectations and needed to be reshaped.
We laughed during the skits and learned about the art of making pots, but we also thought about God’s invitation to us to continually improve and remake our lives. The pile of trash continued to grow until the barrels were overflowing with empty clay bags, dry clay and broken pottery. On Palm Sunday, Mark enlisted Jeremiah and Baruch to help clean up the mess and haul all the trash out of the sanctuary in preparation for laying palms.
During Lent, Mark tried to figure out what to do with all the pottery shards in the barrel and how to turn them into a meaningful reminder of our experience. As he developed the concept of making a mosaic cross, he remembered some drawings he had done once for a banner. He pulled out the drawings—a design of two overlapping doves that form a third dove—and adapted the drawing into a cross. He spent about three weeks making the five-foot-tall mosaic cross.
At the outdoor Easter sunrise service, the youth group passed out some of the pottery shards as mementos of the experience. The congregation knew nothing about Mark’s project until later that morning, when they arrived at church to see the cross hanging on the wall at the front of the sanctuary.
During a children’s story in the worship service, Bonnie Stuckey told the children about how the cross came to be. For his sermon that day, Cliff told Walter Wangerin’s story “The Ragman,” an allegory about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The story tells of a man who takes on all the pain and sadness of the people he meets by exchanging the clean new garments he wears for their soiled bloody rags, until he becomes so burdened and weak he dies. Two days later, he reappears in shining rags but with the scars of the others still visible.
Every person at Zion brings something different to the cross, which now lives permanently in the front of the sanctuary. When Karen Ringenberg sees the cross, she thinks about that night “we broke all those pots, and Mark put them all back together, like Christ puts the broken pieces of our lives together.”
For Barbara Bowman, the cross “feels like a part of us because we were part of the pieces of the cross. It represents our community—the different shapes, sizes, pieces of ourselves that come together to make a whole.”
The mosaic cross reminds us every Sunday that God transforms our brokenness into something beautiful when we let go of ourselves and hold on to God.
Karen Rich Ruth chairs the worship commission at Zion Mennonite Church, Archbold, Ohio.
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