Imposition. That’s a word that we use when we’re annoyed or upset, perceiving some unfair obligation thrust upon us. It’s not something we welcome and in fact is something we resist.
And so I find it intriguing that on Ash Wednesday we receive what is called the “Imposition of Ashes”, when ashes are smeared on our forehead in the shape of a cross, while a phrase such as “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” is spoken over us. Imposing stuff, indeed.
I don’t know where the phrase “imposition of ashes” came from and I haven’t been able to find out. (If any of you who are reading this know, please comment on this post with your information.) I suspect that when the phrase was first used, “imposition” did not have the connotation that it does today — it may have simply meant something like “put on” the ashes. But today, I think that the connotation works well at communicating a deeper reality. The fact is that we do find our mortality to be an imposition, and so we also find reminders of that mortality to be impositions. Some philosophers and sociologists would argue that much of what we do in life — whether that be achievement, entertainment, activity of any sort, even family life — is done partially to avoid having to face our own mortality. There is something visceral in us that screams against the reality of death. This may be an indication that our souls remember that, in fact, we were not intended to die (at least, not permanently) but that we were in fact destined for resurrection.
At the same time, there is something deeply stress-reducing to be reminded of our mortality. As the ashes were smeared on my forehead last week at the Ash Wednesday Service I attended, and as the words “you are dust” were spoken over me, it gave me a wonderful sense of perspective on my worries and my joys, locating all of them within the larger story of life and death, themselves located within God’s Story.
Further, for those of us who are involved in “mission” and “ministry”, reminders of our mortality keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. After all, our vision in these endeavours is grand: CBM’s new Vision Statement is “A broken world made new” — this is epic and heady stuff! And it should be epic and heady — after all, we’re participating in God’s redemption of all things! But . . . it becomes easy to take ourselves too seriously (as G.K. Chesterton said) , instead of taking God seriously and taking God’s mission seriously.
Maybe, in the end, the “imposition” of ashes is not an imposition at all, but the doorway to lightness and perspective and joy as we participate in God’s mission. A dose of humility and mortality-awareness might infuse our mission with joy and playfulness and serve as an antidote to the messiah-complexes that too often creep in. That kind of imposition would be good for us all.