Inside the Smudge We Bear

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Mark 9:30-37

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

We’ve been looking at Mark’s gospel the past month or so. And we’ve noticed that Mark keeps saying things like “let those with ears to hear, hear” or “let those with eyes to see, see”.

He gets that not everyone will understand Jesus, or his mission, or his messiahship. We’ve also noticed that often, the people who understand Jesus the least seem to be his own followers.

In this passage, Jesus is again talking to his disciples about what is to come.

Nobody really wants to talk about death, of course. Not their own. Not Jesus’ death either.

Jesus had just told them something similar on the other side of transfiguration, before he went up the mountain. They didn’t want to hear it then. They don’t want to hear it now.

And god bless those poor disciples. They seem to understand enough about their incomprehension to be afraid to ask him about it. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him”, we’re told in verse 32.

When are we like that?

We feel like we should understand. We love Jesus. We want to understand. And we worry that everyone else clearly understands and we’re the only ones standing around in befuddlement.

Clarity about Jesus is a process. For us. For the disciples.

Then they walk to Capernaum. And after they’ve unpacked, Jesus turns to them and says “what were you arguing about on the way?

He says it the way my mom used to ask my brother and I what we were doing in the back seat of the car, even though we know she had eyes in the back of her head and that she knew full well what we were doing back there, bothering each other.

What were you arguing about on the way?

In this particular situation, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them, and they knew enough not to say that out loud.

But we are no less guilty of this kind of speculation than are the disciples. We may not ask it that way. But we want it all to be about us. We want to be impressive and we want to do good things for Jesus, maybe because we feel, deep down inside, that God couldn’t possibly love us as we are and is just waiting for us to be impressive.

Or we argue about things that really don’t matter. I’m sure you don’t need illustrations. We know of them from our own lives.

The refrain of Ash Wednesday is “from dust you are and to dust you shall return”. It is a phrase somewhat at odds with our American culture that would deny death, and the natural order of aging.


photo by Carolyn Blackhurst, Feb 10, 2016, Idaho State Capitol

But it is a powerful claim of the faith. We are created. like Adam and Eve, out of the dust of God’s creation. At the end, we return to the earth. And in between it all, we live as beloved children of God, reminded that we did not create ourselves and that we cannot live forever.

If we can remember Ash Wednesday, it is easier to not be the disciples who get caught arguing along the way. If we remember that there is a God and we are not God, we can approach our own successes and our failures with a different perspective.

We no longer have to be afraid to ask God our questions.

Because we know God is not confused about which one of us is God. Our mortality is not something to overcome. It is something to acknowledge and live into.

The prophet Joel speaks to this in the reading we heard tonight. The reminder of our human-ness is a reminder to return to God.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…

In Lent, we turn again, we return to God. And not because dust is something of no value. But because the God we serve can make beautiful things, out of the dust.
Listen to these words from the poet Jan Richardson:

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

Let us remember what the holy one can do with dust. As the song says, “you make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things out of us.”

May it be so. Amen.



One thought on “Inside the Smudge We Bear

  1. Pingback: The Divine Possible | Glass Overflowing

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