It’s amazing sometimes that anyone can learn English. Look up the word “imposition” in Webster’s, for example, and you’ll find four listings:
something imposed: as (a) a levy, tax, or (b) an excessive or uncalled-for requirement or burden
the act of imposing
the order or arrangement of imposed pages
What then to make of the Christian practice known as the “imposition of ashes”? It’s the centerpiece of the liturgy on Ash Wednesday (beginning of the forty-day season of penitence known as Lent), in which a priest or pastor dips his or her finger in ashes (traditionally, burned palm branches from Palm Sunday) and draws a cross on the parishioner’s forehead, “imposing” ashes on the skin.
I’m sure it strikes some as an “uncalled-for requirement or burden,” though there’s nothing mandatory about it even for those who have freely chosen to go out on a Wednesday night and attend worship. In our church, one can ask for ashes to be imposed on the wrist, or simply request an ash-free blessing. And ashes make for a pretty light burden. So negligible a presence that it usually takes me less than an hour to forget that the ashes are there, brush the hair back from my forehead, and smudge the cross. Nor is there anything particularly “imposing” about it to others; “odd” perhaps…
In one sense, Ash Wednesday is all about deception, or at least, confronting the deceptions we practice (on ourselves most of all) in the days, weeks, and months leading up to Lent. But, of course, to have ashes imposed is ultimately an act of shocking honesty: accepting the image of the device that killed your Savior as a statement to everyone who consequently stares at you that you are a sinner — that those sins led to His crucifixion — and are destined for death yourself.
I happened to be the first in line for imposition last night, which meant that I sat in the front pew and watched as one after another walked by. And, macabre though it be, I couldn’t help but think that I was watching people in the process of dying. Some three years old, some thirty, and several closer to 3 x 30… All bearing this reminder that their time on earth was trickling away.
But like most Christian symbols, the imposed ashes don’t mean just one thing. Here’s Lauren Winner explaining why she joins a colleague on Ash Wednesday in “Ashes to Go,” a kind of “liturgical evangelism” in which Episcopal priests stand on street corners, at bus stops, in train stations, and other very public spots and offer to impose ashes on passers-by too busy to get to church:
What ministers with their ashes are offering is a bodily marker of God’s entry into our death. The ashes Cathie will inscribe on my forehead, and I on hers, let me name truths that most days I cannot or will not name — that I have sinned; also, that I have a body, and I am going to die. To walk around all day with a cross on your head is to walk around in a body inscribed with death. It is also, oddly, to walk around inscribed with hope — the hope that comes through Jesus’ having joined us in our mortality.
Death and life; sin and salvation; tragedy and hope. It’s remarkable how so small a symbol can take on such complicated meaning.
As it’s conducted in our church, the ceremony of imposition has no musical accompaniment. As you wait to receive ashes or sit in the pew trying not to itch them, the only sounds you hear are the hushed voices of our pastors repeating the same fourteen words over and over: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
Laden with all those double meanings I mentioned above and lacking any musical cues, it can be hard to know what to feel during this portion of the service. Should we weep in sorrow as we sit beneath the shadow of the Cross? Meditate on what we’ve done and left undone, how we’ve sinned in thought, word, and deed? Recommit ourselves to repentance and obedience? Rest assured that those sins are forgiven? Should we stare at the crosses on our fellow congregants, or look away and focus on our own mortality for a moment?
And then it ends. And we sing a hymn and leave. Not knowing quite how to do it. It’s not quite as solemn as Good Friday, when one simply doesn’t speak to others. But a friend and I had this awkward moment last night after the service when we realized that we didn’t know how to greet each other. (“Happy Ash Wednesday doesn’t sound right,” she said.)
Then you’re back in the world, going about your life as usual but bearing this most unusual symbol — ugly and beautiful — that invites curious looks and, hopefully, questions from those you meet.
My two-year old daughter stared at my forehead, wrinkled her nose, then smiled and said, “Church! Cross!”
And by the dawn, the ashes are gone. And with them, the reminder of our mortality and our hope in Christ, and perhaps the weirdest but most compellingly routine form of Christian witness. We continue on with our lives, tempted again both to deceive ourselves into saying that we have no sin and can live as if death dare not trouble us, and to hide our Christ from the world.
But Lent helps us to resist those temptations. Listening to our organist play “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” as a prelude last night, I was struck by this idea that Ash Wednesday reminds us to turn around from our busy, self-centered lives, and look back over space and time to see Cavalry at a distance, the Cross a speck on the horizon, no bigger than its ashy silhouette we bear. If we do heed the call to repent and hear the Gospel, we turn back and begin a forty-day walk through the sins and injustices we spend the rest of the year gliding past so blithely. That journey takes us back to the foot of the Cross, “on which the Prince of Glory died.” We weep as “from his head, his hands, his feet, / sorrow and love flow mingled down.” And only then are we prepared to sing Isaac Watts’ words with anything like honest commitment:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.