First you learn the baby words. Narthex, nave, sanctuary. Then a few that are a little more advanced – tabernacle, rood screen, and chancel. As you mature, you begin to try out some words that are a little more daring, like words that describe ordinary items in a church-ish way. Not a cup, but a chalice. Not a plate, but a paten. Not a napkin, but a purificator. (Microsoft Word, by the by, does not speak church. I know this because “purificator” got that ugly little red squiggle under it as I typed it.) And finally, when you feel fully confident and all grown-up, you pull out the grandest churchspeak word of all. You correctly use, in a complete sentence, the word aspergillium. As in, “Did you notice the priest’s hands were so wet that when she went to bless us with holy water she shot the aspergillium across the room?” (True story.)
There is, of course, another way to prove your fluency in churchspeak, and that is to use ordinary words in a new way. To use communicate as a way of describing the distribution of the holy bread and wine instead of the means of exchanging information. To use the word voluntary as a noun instead of an adjective. And, in tonight’s case, to change the way you use the word imposition. For tonight, in a few moments, we will begin the imposition of ashes. Meaning that we will impose – or put – ashes – upon – your foreheads.
Now when we use the word imposition out there in the non- churchspeak world, we, of course, use it in its modern context. An imposition is something you don’t want, something you wouldn’t cross the street for, let alone queue up for. An imposition is a burden, a weight, an encumbrance that really, in all fairness, should carry with it an apology. To use it in a sentence: “I’m planning on bringing all six of my cats with you when I come to visit; I hope that won’t be too much of an imposition.”
But this evening, when we offer the imposition of ashes, that is not how the Church is intending this word to be heard. We aren’t saying that we mean to lay something on you that is an undue obligation, something taxing and troublesome. The imposition this evening isn’t meant to be onerous. We mean to impose in a literal sense – to put upon, to set upon your foreheads a little smudge of ash. A simple reminder – it is Lent again, time to repent and return to the Lord.
And it’s true that much of the time Lent doesn’t feel like an imposition at all. Many of us experience the coming of Lent as a desperately needed tug in the right direction. Our lives have gotten off center – we’re spending too much time on the computer and too little time on our knees. We aren’t eating or exercising or serving or studying the way we want to. And so Lent comes along like a much-needed drill sergeant, yelling, “Get up, you maggot! Time to do your spiritual sit-ups. Give me 50. Oh, come on, you call that contemplative prayer? My 97-year-old grandma can center herself better than that.”
And this is fine; it’s good, in fact. Lent should be a time to get back into shape. It should be a time reevaluate the course our life is on and to make adjustments, that’s part of the point of the season. But Lent is not just about trimming the fat, or losing the fat, or losing talking about trimming the fat on Facebook. Because if we’re approaching Lent with the feeling that we can just breeze right on through it, then I think we’re really missing out on something.
Because there’s nothing light and breezy about the words we use during the imposition of ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ah. Hmm. Well, perhaps imposition isn’t such a strange word to use after all. Because if we really listen to these words, if we really hear what the Church is reminding us this night, it all might seem just a bit burdensome. It might seem like a burden to come to church this evening – on a weeknight, no less, and on a freezing cold weeknight, at that – only to be reminded that you’re going to die, just like everyone else in this room. It might feel just a little bit onerous to hear how sinful you should feel, how much repenting and confessing you should be doing. It might be that the upcoming 40-day journey through Lent feels like just the tiniest bit too much – too much time, too much fasting, too, much being put upon.
This is especially true when you are experiencing one of those times in your life when you just aren’t feeling particularly wretched. Perhaps you’re feeling as innocent as a newborn babe, or as wise and wonderful as a wrinkled old man. Perhaps you’re sitting here feeling as full-hearted as a bride or as giddy as a bridegroom. Perhaps life is good, and you’re feeling pretty darn good about yourself, thank you very much, and you don’t feel like you actually have much to repent for, let alone the fasting and the weeping and the rending your clothes and hearts.
Of course, Lent can also feel like an imposition when your life isn’t filled with sunshine and lollipops. Perhaps the imposition of ashes and the invitation to a holy Lent feels onerous to you precisely because life is already shoving you down into the dust. Perhaps your life already feels like a day of darkness and gloom, of clouds as thick as a plague. Perhaps you’re wondering why even bother repenting, why bother turning back to a God who lets this thing – this death, this depression, this divorce, this destruction – happen. Return to me with all your heart? Forget that, Lord, and why would you want this broken old thing anyway.
So how do we deal with Lents like these? How do we shove off this feeling of burden, this sense that we are being imposed upon in ways that we don’t want or can hardly bear? The trick, I think, is to reframe the word. Because the truth is that Ash Wednesday is about imposition. Just not in the ways we might imagine. For Ash Wednesday reminds us of the way God allowed himself to be imposed upon for you and for me. Ash Wednesday reminds us that God chose to let himself be put upon for our sakes, to let the cross be put upon his shoulders, to let our own sin be put upon his head. Ash Wednesday reminds us that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin,” so that through the life, death, and resurrection of his only Son we could actually become righteous and reflective of God’s image and likeness. And Ash Wednesday does impose upon us – not suffering, but love; not grinding guilt, but the gift of clarifying, reviving hope.
This is why we are all invited to a holy Lent. Not just those of us who want it, but every single one of us – the aged and the children and the infants at the breast, the content and the jubilant and the just so-so. Because Lent is about us – all of us – being swept off our feet by the imposition of God’s love upon our own tender, broken hearts. Lent is about acknowledging that you and I are so overwhelmingly blessed that we cannot help but fall to the ground, to the dust, trembling in the face of such blinding love and mercy. Lent is about being knocked off-center by the gift of God’s fundamental steadfastness, of God’s refusal to ever let us go.
So if you are filled with joy, return to the Lord and rejoice. If you are filled with pain, return to the Lord, even now, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” And if you’re filled with confidence and plans for the season, return to the Lord, with hearts open for God’s holy surprise.
I entreat you, then, on behalf of Christ, to put on all the fullness of this holy Lent. Let God impose upon you the weight of his mercy, the yoke of his forgiveness, the burden of his blessing. Repent and return to the Lord, and feel the touch of this holy imposition of love. For there, in this holy imposition, there in this steadfast love, there is your God.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
18 February 2015, Ash Wednesday
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia