The Ashes are an Imposition

Last year was my first time to ever observe Ash Wednesday and receive the imposition of the ashes. For me the words, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” echoed in my heart and mind all day and the grayish cross on my forehead was simply there to  remind me of my humanity, my limitations, and calling me to repent of my busy, crowded multitasking life. 

I went again this year and got stuck on the word imposition.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I’ve heard that word used as something one doesn’t want to be. “We don’t want to be an imposition,” the guests would say if my mother invited them to stay for dinner or the night.  “Don’t impose on your hosts” I was taught, meaning pitch in and help wash the dishes or strip your bed when you stay in someone’s home for a night.  To drop by someone’s house without calling was an imposition.  To be called an ‘imposing figure’ was not a compliment.   

Imposition - it means a burden, a bother, an encumbrance, a worry.  

As I am prone to do, I began to ask questions about the language, to meditate on the choice of word, and though it was probably not the original intent of its usage, nor did I feel burdened or bothered in the moment I received the sign of the cross with ashes, I have concluded they are an imposition. 

They are there to remind me that I am dust. Frail. Temporal. Moving toward decay.  I would rather not think about any of those things.  To face those things is to have to ask myself hard questions: Where am I going for strength?  What is eternal?  What can be made new?

Push through. Mind over matter. That’s how I’ve lived most of my life.  I deny weakness.  I suspect we all do until it takes us by the collar. 

I know logically that each hour of the day that passes I will never get it back, and yet I don’t spend my time where I say it matters and on whom I say matters to me. I deny that I am temporal. 

I know things are moving toward decay, yet I hate how aging feels and looks and I try the world’s offerings to deny it.

Ashes are an imposition because they force me out of my stupor. They awaken me. They impose reality. The body is temporal; the soul, eternal.  How am I caring for the part that last forever? Am I listening to it when it speaks?   Do I pay attention to the place in me where God dwells? 

The imposition of the ashes is also associated with mourning. Being awake to life means accepting grief as part of it, doing the work of grief,  whether the loss of someone or something precious, a stage of life passed by, or grief over sin.  It’s so much easier to deny - to keep moving, to keep numbing, to stay buttoned-up.  If I stop to let myself feel grief, will it swallow me whole? Will I ever smile again?  Will new life really come?

Yes. Yes. Let the ashes impose upon you,” my soul whispers.  Think about it even if it hurts. They are made in the sign of the cross, where every sin, every hurt, every grief is taken from you and for you, where frail, temporal and decaying are not denied, but destroyed; and strength, eternity and new life are won.