Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51.10)
With a free afternoon on our hands, Walt and I recently took a guided tour of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing. We turned into one of the galleries and the docent pointed to a pile of colorfully wrapped candies spilling out of a corner. She told us the work, by conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), was called Portrait of Ross. We had no idea what to make of the sculpture until we heard the story behind it.
Ross was Gonzalez-Torres’ life partner. In peak health, he weighed 167 pounds, the same weight of the sculpture when it’s in peak condition. With just this much information, the docent asked us to call out qualities that the artwork conveyed. “Sweet-natured. Colorful. Sparkly. Inviting,” we said. Then she went on with the story. After Ross was afflicted with AIDS, his body grew depleted, as the virus took more and more of him away. The docent invited us to take “pieces of Ross” with us, as a loving testament to his life. Someone asked what happens to the sculpture over time. Does it gradually fade into the corner until the last piece is gone? “Oh no,” she answered. “This isn’t about Ross’s death. It’s a portrait of Gonzalez-Torres’ love for him. We continually restore the candy to its original weight so everyone who visits the museum can draw from Ross’s joyful spirit. It’s a remarkably hopeful work.”
We moved on to other works. But my mind couldn’t release itself from Portrait of Ross. I kept wondering, “If it were a portrait of me, what would it be made of?” I trust there would be a lot candy, a lot of sparkle, a lot of color. But visitors would also need to be told I’m not all sweetness and light. There are hard rocks buried in my pile, along with shards of glass, dead seeds, some needles, and more than a few brightly wrapped bits that carry a tart aftertaste. If my sculpture were to portray any hope at all, it would be that my Maker would sift out the unsavory pieces and substitute them with more delectable morsels—that with each replenishing, the increased portrayal of God’s love would result in more of me becoming a thing worth reaching for.
Lent is our sifting time. In partnership with God, we rummage through our lives and discard pieces of us that don’t reflect the love of our Maker. And as we go through this process, we will feel depleted. But we will not be sifted away. How God sees us is far different than we see ourselves. God sees us as God wants us to be: sweet-natured, colorful, sparkly, inviting. With each sifting, what is taken away is substituted with more delectable morsels. With each replenishing, more of us becomes worth reaching for. Lent’s depletion isn’t about death. It’s a portrait of God’s love for us. It’s remarkably hopeful work.