It is always a remarkable moment to stand here and see all of you looking back at me with the dark, cross-shaped smudges on your foreheads. It is like holding up the bread and wine at communion and seeing, in a sense, the people of God through communion; to see the body of Christ amongst the Body of Christ. Tonight we see the cross of Christ upon the Body of Christ.
Earlier this week, as Dee Dee was preparing to send out information on our Lenten activities, she came to my office and said, “What’s the word for what you do with the ashes?” It made me pause a moment. Well, I thought, I gather up the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday worship and burn them. I crush the burned bits in a mortar and pestle until they are a very fine powder. I sift them to get rid of sticks and unburned pieces and sometimes I mix them with the previous years’ ashes if there are any left over. Then I carefully pour them into a little bowl. Lastly, we bless them in the worship service.
Gather, burn, crush, sift, mix, pour, bless.
The word she was looking for, however, was none of these. It was the word that is in the rite itself; the word that describes the act of applying them to the forehead. Imposition. It is a very curious word. We do not say “Blessing with Ashes” although the cross is of course a blessing and knowledge of our mortality and reliance upon God is, too. We do not say the “bestowal” or “gift” of ashes, though it surely is the bestowal of a gift. No, instead we say imposition.
Imposition means to inconvenience, to put someone out in some way. Such as, the road construction in front of the church is such an imposition! Or, could I ask you to read the lesson for worship tonight if it isn’t an imposition for you?
Ash Wednesday IS an imposition. Actually, all of Lent is an imposition. It is not something we asked for and it probably isn’t something we really want. We are supposed to come to worship twice a week, Sunday AND Wednesday nights, too! We are encouraged to give something up, usually something we really like, and to give it up from tonight through Easter Sunday. Certain joyful words and hymns are to be put away until the end of Lent and, let’s face it, all that confessing stuff is a real downer!
God presumes to imposition us!
When I was serving my internship year at Mt Olive Lutheran in Hickory, my friends from Charlotte, Nancy and her husband Don, came to visit and see the church. I was giving them the tour and when we opened the doors to the worship space, Nancy nearly ran smack into the baptismal font. It stood just inside the door in the middle of the isle. “Well,” she said, “what a terrible location! It is right in the way!” Yes, it was in the way. On purpose.
God does that. God gets in our way, impositions us, will not be ignored, slows us down, makes us think, change direction, consider what we are doing, pay attention. Lent is unapologetically an imposition on our lives in a far more overt way than the rest of the year. Lent makes us slow down, think, change direction, pay attention to what we are doing. God gets in our way on purpose.
We are speeding down the road of life, doing pretty much whatever we want and then suddenly.. BAM.. there’s a speed bump in the middle of the road! BAM there’s a baptismal font standing right in the middle of the way into worship. BAM there’s Ash Wednesday right in the middle of the week, right as we are entering into spring. We might all be thinking about blooming daffodils, lawns that will soon need to be mown, hope for warming weather, plans for planting the spring garden and all those other early spring things and then BAM we are IMPOSITIONED by ASHES!
We stop. We consider what we are doing. We look around and consider one another, seeing the Body of Christ, each Christian, marked with the cross of Christ. We see the cross of Christ when we look at one another. Look around at each other now and see. Each face you see is one that is loved by God. Each person you see bears the image of God, the image of Christ’s great sacrifice and love.
A speed bump is something you can just fly right on past if you want, perhaps even slam over at full speed. But a speed bump is also something that can slow you down so that you can see the child running across the street in time to stop, so you can be seen by the other driver at the intersection and not have a wreck. Maybe there are other reasons for speed bumps too, like being able to notice the world around you.
These crosses of ashes are speed bumps designed to be in the way so that we cannot look at one another without realizing that other is someone God loves, would die for, bears the image of God just as we do. We look at ourselves in the mirror and see this imposition on our own body. How many times a day do we belittle or beat ourselves up over our mistakes and flaws? How often do we have an inappropriate self-esteem that is ether too low or too high? How frequently do we choose poor stewardship of ourselves by treat ourselves poorly or over indulging in self-harming habits? When you leave tonight, look at yourself in the mirror before you wash off the ash. See that cross? See that mark of Christ’s love and sacrifice for you? It’s on there all the time, just as it is for everyone here, it is only that on this night we can see them for ourselves. This is God getting in our way of judging our neighbors, our enemies, and even ourselves. This is God’s speed bump that makes us slow down and pay attention to what we are doing, how we are treating one another, how we are treating ourselves, think and observe our own actions and, perhaps, change direction.
The other thing that the word IMPOSITION means is to place a burden on someone. We are given an imposition of ashes, the burden of this cross, for many reasons. Most importantly, however, is the burden this cross symbolizes that is lifted from us and borne by Christ instead. Remember, o mortal, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Christ has taken this burden on himself; our burden of death upon himself. And destroyed it. Remember, o mortal, you are dust and to dust you shall return. But not forever, for Christ has ultimately destroyed death and graciously granted us eternal life. These ashes are but a shadow of what death once was.
We are called by God to be imposition by Lent. We could just speed right through it like one of those frustrating speed bumps. But there is probably a good reason, both for ourselves and for others, for us to consider this particular speed bump. So I invite you to embrace the imposition of Lent. Slow down a bit and look for the ways that God is getting in your way. Pay attention to the crosses, both visible this night and invisible but still present on other nights, which are on the faces of those around you and on your own.