Ashes are ceremonially placed on the heads of Christians on Ash Wednesday, either by being sprinkled over their heads or more often by being marked on their foreheads as a visible cross. Words based on Genesis 3:19 are used traditionally to accompany this gesture, “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” (“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.”)
I wanted to take a moment to invest in the idea that we are asked to accept the ashes which will be imposed upon us to start our journey through Lent. I wonder how you feel about being imposed upon? There is a negative connotation to this idea. The dictionary definition of imposition implies an unfair or unwelcome demand or burden. Is this, I wonder, how we feel about accepting a symbol of our mortality, a symbol of judgement, a symbol of the need for repentance??
There is certainly something within us that fights this notion of imposition. Lent is a journey in which the church assumes we will take upon us symbols and actions which would not be of our own choice. To fast, to pray for others, to give more abundantly of our time and money than we otherwise do. This is a journey and a season of imposition. And that is because this journey reflects Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem which was one of similar choices and sacrifices.
There is a small book written some time ago now called the Stature of Waiting which calls on Christians to follow the example of Christ in the embracing imposition. In this beautiful book the author William Vanstone reminds us that at the heart of the most powerful moments in Jesus life is a figure of waiting .. a Messiah who is done to rather than acts upon.
The idea that Jesus was acted upon throws a new light on the concept of waiting. It emphasises acceptance as a virtue in life and in the fulfilment of God’s plans. We are increasingly getting worse at waiting in our contemporary society aren’t we. Everything happens so quickly and we want instancy in everything .. buy now pay later culture. Waiting is regarded as frustrating. It brings with it a diminution of our proper status.
The theme of imposition in Lent reminds us that impatience has an ultimate end in frustration and embarrassment. If we seek to promote ourselves and our agenda too quickly we fall into the trap of exalting ourselves and as the Bible puts it ‘ he that exalts himself will be humbled’. Impatience is the sign of self-promotion and cannot end well.
However in Lent and in Christ’s final week of passion we have this example of Christ being humbled and abased through the actions of others. Being acted upon or imposed upon .. a figure of waiting and of dependence on other peoples actions. And yet in this waiting He discloses a deep dimension of God’s image and purpose in the world.
Christ in acceptance of imposition reveals that God makes all things beautiful in Her time. At the right moment those who have humbled themselves will be exalted .. that Christ the lowest and most ‘done to’ figure in history .. becomes the highest in heaven .. seated at God’s right hand in glory .. to judge the living and the dead .. whose kingdom shall have no end.
Let us therefore accept imposition with ashes and throughout Lent. For this is to imitate Christ. Let us wait well .. Let us accept that though we be imposed upon in this world we will also be acted upon in the next by the host of the banquet .. called to come closer .. to sit nearer .. because we have endured with patience with God.
For in all this we are reminded in some mysterious way we share our waiting with God who is also patient and forbearing ..