Ashes really are an Imposition
There are some liturgical things that we say that just sound weird when you stop to listen to them (then again the word “which” always freaks me out when I stop and really look at it… not sure why – just does, somethings are so ordinary and routine we don’t realize what we are really saying, and just how non-ordinary they are).
This brings me to Ash Wednesday (today, if it isn’t already today for you it will be soon). In an Ash Wednesday service we do an Imposition of Ashes. It has always struck me as a strange turn of phrase. I guess it sounds more like a Holy Rite than “Smear some greasy soot on you.”
But then there is something fitting about it. Because the ashes are an imposition. The ashes impose on us. Death imposes on us. And Lent, which is more than a little about death, imposes on us too.
I have a couple of clergy friends who observed a few years ago that in their experience people no longer stop for funerals and memorial services. We are a people so on-the-go that we don’t have time to stop and grieve. And when we do it’s in a planned out destination funeral kind of way as if we have to roll in a vacation and family reunion while we pause to make good use of our time.
Now I don’t imagine this is true for all of you… its an observation of norms not specifics. So while it isn’t necessarily true there is yet a kernel of truth to it. We don’t have time for death to impose on us too much. We are ready to get back to the grind, too many things to do, too many voices clamoring for our attention. And sometimes we play into that world because it is an easy way to avoid grief. It is an easy way to avoid the internal journey of getting in touch with our loss and the healing work of lament – of voicing our grief out loud in a cathartic expression of frustration and hurt.
And then there is more… the ashes aren’t simply a reminder of mortality and death. They are also a sign of repentance. A sign of recognizing the sin of our own choices, the brokenness in our relationships, and prompting a desire to “turn back” (repent) to God’s way of grace, forgiveness, and new life.
This too is a process we do not normally take time for. Repentance also is an imposition. It imposes on us because in a world where we are constantly being judged – by teachers and bosses, parents and friends, neighbors and strangers alike – we cannot afford to admit to ourselves that we have reason to be judged. We cannot afford to demonstrate that there is a weakness in our armor in a world waiting to pounce on any weakness.
So the Ashes impose. Because God imposes when we aren’t willing to stop of our own accord. “I will make you lay down in green pastures” is God’s word to us in Psalm 23. Not I will let you, or I will give you the luxury of good rest. I will MAKE you lay down. Because we don’t naturally do so.
So God imposes, ashes impose, death imposes, repentance imposes… and it is good. Because God knows that health comes from rooting out that which is unhealthy. And life comes from death.
This year – may ash impose itself on your life… and may you be blessed by the occasion.