9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
I saw a slightly cheesy comic online the other day. It shows two small furry creatures, prairie dogs maybe, talking to each other. One says, “The world is hurting. I want to help, but how?” and the other small furry creature just gives him a hug and says, “You are loved. Pass it on.” So the second furry creature finds a rhino and hugs her and says, “You are loved. Pass it on” and the rhino finds a lion and gives him a hug and says “You are loved. Pass it on” and the lion finds a giraffe and pretty soon whole world is saying “You are loved. Pass it on.”
Like I said, slightly cheesy. But also a lot like what is happening in the gospel of Mark today and what we are doing tonight and what most of the whole church around the world is doing for Lent, saying again and again, “You are loved. Pass it on.” Or as Jan Richardson put it in the poem “Beloved is where we begin.”
Lent can feel like a time doing a lot of things, and it often is, but the doing of all the things is not where we start. It’s not even where Jesus starts. That was chapter one of Mark, the first gospel to be written, and the first appearance Jesus makes. You might expect a grand entrance of miracle working or a speech, but instead Jesus goes to get baptized by someone else. In this first scene we don’t hear Jesus speak at all, instead he hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That’s where Jesus whole ministry starts, with being beloved.
Now Jesus hears this at his baptism and baptism is an important manifestation of God’s love for us and the ways we promise to pass that on, but baptism formalizes that relationship, it doesn’t create it. Jesus was thirty years old when he was baptized. It’s not like until then he had been walking around with God thinking, “I don’t know about this guy” and then baptism changed God’s mind. God already knew that Jesus was his beloved son, and whether or not you have been baptized, God already knows that you too are God’s beloved child. Baptism is important to bring up today though because it gives us a context for our use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Part of the baptismal ritual is to trace a cross on the baptizee’s forehead with olive oil and say “You, child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In other words, you are beloved and you have an identity completely apart from what you do or what happens to you. When we put ashes on each other’s foreheads tonight it’s also with olive oil and in the shape of a cross, but now we say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It doesn’t contradict the words at baptism, it adds to them. That blessing of “child of God” is always underneath the new words and where this Ash Wednesday ritual begins. The ashes that are added to the oil add another truth, “You, child of God, are mortal. You, child of God, are flawed. And you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
You are loved is always where we begin, but the reason that that comic struck me as kind of cheesy is because we all know it’s more complicated than that. If we could just pass hugs around and achieve world peace I think we would have done it by now. But it’s more complicated because we are flawed, the churchy word would be sinful. We all make decisions and get caught up in systems that harm ourselves, each other and God’s creation. And so ashes are a sign of repentance, that means stopping that harm and living a different way. In the Old Testament when people realized just how messed up they or their communities had gotten, they would put ashes on their heads as a sign of that repentance. So that is part of what we do today. Because I know that everyone in this room knows how messed up things have gotten, and the ways that each of us has participated in that or at least stepped back and watched it happen. And we want to do better, we want our communities to be better. But in order to actually live differently we have to not only acknowledge that we’ve messed things up, but hear that God still loves us and we still love each other, and it really is worth it to try to do better. That’s what confession lets us do: acknowledge the mess out loud, commit to trying to do better and hear that we are still loved and that it’s still worth it to keep trying.
But we also use ashes and the words with them, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” to remind us of our mortality. We are not forever. We are not limitless or the complete captains of our own destiny. We die, and people who we love die. Even in the sincerest hope and belief that death is not the end for us, being mortal is difficult and often filled with grief. We put ashes on our foreheads both to be honest about that fact, but also to set it right next to that promise that you are a beloved child of God. Yes, we will return to dust, but doesn’t make us meaningless, because before and through that truth is the truth that you are loved, that is where you begin and that part of your identity will last forever.
These are difficult things to say: I am sinful. I will die. And yet there is a freedom in acknowledging our mortality and our world’s brokenness that exists even within our own hearts and minds. We know we are broken. We know we will die. What Lent asks us to remember with that is that we are loved. That sin and death do not have the last word on who we are and they are never our most foundational piece or the place where we begin. During Lent we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take that love and pass it on, but only because we are loved. In God’s eyes we are all mortal and loved, sinful and loved, but beloved is always where we begin.