Smudges on the Soul: A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

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, and relents from punishing. (Joel 2:12-13, NRSV)


I would rather wear the smudge on my forehead than to admit its residence upon my soul. I prefer a crude cross above my eyes to questions about runny mascara and smudged liner. In a place where self-confidence is rewarded and any sign of weakness or emotional predisposition is held suspect, it is difficult to consider actually following the advice of the prophet to return to the Lord with fasting, with weeping and with mourning. It is, however, acceptable — maybe even fashionable to appear in public with a dirty forehead as a sign that I have religion. It is amazing how the symbols of piety, sackcloth and ashes, have been transformed into mask that hides me from myself and circumvents the intent of Ash Wednesday.


Blow the trumpet in Zion, the prophet said. Not the trumpet that signals advance to war, or the trumpet that celebrates victory, but the one that warns trembling penitents that the day of the Lord is coming. Blow the trumpet that warns a penitent like me to wear the smudge of ashes long after her face has been washed and to admit the smudge on the one place that matters to God, her heart.


Blow the trumpet in Zion, the prophet said, and sanctify a fast (Joel 2:15). Hear the sounds of grumbling need in a world where few are filled — and where we are overfilled. Today I am called to push away from the voracious consumption of everything in my path, for at least a little while, in hopes that I might realize something about the equitable distribution of the world's resources before the fast is over.


Rend your hearts and not your garments, the prophet said (Joel 2:13). The gift of the day is personal reflection, a season of confession, and change. Start the arduous journey from shadow to substance, from ritual to reality, from façade to faith. Today, choose the harder course. It is easier to buy new clothing than to mend a soul.


Prayer: Lord, as I begin this year's Lenten Journey, turn my attention to the things that matter most to you. Amen.


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Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Ccopyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

"Smudges on the Soul" was first printed in the 2007 Upper Room Disciplines and is used with permission.

Categories: 21st Century Liturgy, Lent - Easter - Holy Week, Lent, Ash Wednesday

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