Ash Wednesday: A Reflection on The Imposition

March 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Sure I’d be glad to help.”

“Really? Are you sure, I’d hate to impose,” I reply.

“Oh, no, seriously,” they assure me. “It wouldn’t be an imposition at all. I’d be glad to pick up your dry cleaning / help with your PowerPoint / take a volunteering shift for you / feed your cat . . . ”

Conversations like these are looping through my head as I consider Ash Wednesday. I keep returning to the “imposition.”

Here’s what The Book of Common prayer says is happening in thousands
of churches today —
The ashes are imposed with the following words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And Ash Wednesday is an imposition, right? Our tradition tells us — imposes on us — to consider our own birth and death today. Remember you are made of microscopic particles, and to microscopic particles you shall return. Today’s another typical New York City day — a quick coffee stop, an email from a friend, a subway delay due to a sick passenger, tabloid headlines about an actor in a sitcom I’ve never seen — with one extra thing added to the top of the to-do list. We’re compelled to think about our own creation and our own death. That’s a pretty big side job, isn’t it?  Emily Dickinson’s dark carriage comes to mind: “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me –”

Imposition turns out to be a rich word with many meanings. Impositions can be uncalled for burdens, things we really do just to be polite. We call big presences, reaching magnificence beyond our understanding, “imposing” too. I’m thinking: redwood trees, Empire State Building, Queen Elizabeth II. I just learned that in graphic design imposition means “setting up pages in their correct order.”

Dear God, Lent begins today. Stand with us as ashes are imposed on our foreheads in the shape of your Cross. Be patient with us while we try to think about our birth and death and remember the vastness of your creation. Help us to see this Lent as a opportunity for setting our lives in order. We want to reach beyond a polite relationship with You to something that’s really magnificent. Amen.

— Chris Phillips

(image: mtsofan on Flickr via Creative Commons)

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§ 3 Responses to Ash Wednesday: A Reflection on The Imposition

  • Jack Murray says:

    What a fantastic introduction to the Lenten blog! I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve never quite thought of Ash Wednesday with regard to life and death–never quite getting past the whole issue of being so publicly marked as Christ’s own (Back in the 70’s, Fr. Gervase made certain we public school boys were well covered with ashes at the earliest mass).

    I learned two hours ago that my dearest friend in the office just lost her brother in a horrible, unexpected accident. Trying to find words of consolation, I try not to be preachy, but comforting, finally settling on affirming that “another door opens when our window on this world closes”.

    And now here it is: Another door opens indeed. To something really magnificent.

  • Pat Galloway says:

    Beautiful reflection, Chris.

  • Julia says:

    Thank you for this great prayer!

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