The Great Imposition

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
© Stacey Steck

You’ve all come tonight for the Imposition of Ashes. But do you really know what you’re getting yourselves into? According to the Apostle Paul, when you come forward to begin your Lent with ashes, you also get a whole lot more: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Yes, all of that is potentially part of the package of outing yourself as a Christian by walking around in public with a mark on your forehead. At least if you’re doing it right.

The practice of burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and then putting them on the forehead as a sign of repentance is a Christian tradition that began centuries after the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, but the act of publicly demonstrating one’s faith goes back to the very beginning of the Church. The list of martyrs would be short indeed if the grace of God had not compelled the early followers of Christ to share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But all through the book of Acts are those stories that tell us how Peter and Paul and Philip and all the rest could not contain their joy and conviction and made their relationship with God known to all by word and deed, and in so doing, incurred the wrath of those who feared what they could not understand. And hence, the “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger” that came with them not keeping their faith to themselves.

As dangerous as the world is out there for faithful Christians, I want to reassure you that it is not so that you can stay out of trouble that we hold this service in the evening and have less risk of being seen. It’s so that you’ll be here at all! The point is not to try to stir up trouble for you one day of the year, but to get you to stir up trouble every day of the year. You see, Ash Wednesday isn’t really about outing yourself as a Christian by putting a mark on your head. It’s about owning your mortality, your sinfulness, and your need for God by accepting the great imposition of faith you were marked with at your baptism. There’s a reason the ritual is called the “imposition” of ashes, and not the application of ashes, or the reception of ashes, or the display of ashes. Even though it is an outward display of our faith, in seeming contrast to Jesus’ words to not make our piety public, the sign of the cross on the forehead is really to be seen by each of us alone, a kind of invitation to look in the mirror and be reminded of the great and wonderful burden of faith in Jesus Christ that God has placed upon us, and how, all too often, we try to wriggle out from under that burden, or pass it off on someone else, or use it as an excuse for inaction, anything to escape the glorious responsibility that God has imposed upon us.

We usually think of a burden as something unwanted like a debt or an inconvenience, or more work, or the weather, things that weigh heavily on us, and keep us from doing what we’d rather be doing. Sometimes our burdens are self-imposed, but other times it feels like they’ve been unilaterally and unfairly added to our shoulders, and don’t we always rebel against things that are forced upon us? Caring for a child or an elder is a burden of time and energy. Bearing the expectations of a family is an emotional burden. Harboring a disease within our bodies is a physical burden. Being a tax-paying citizen is an economic burden. Serving as an Elder or Deacon or leader in ministry is a spiritual burden. Are you feeling it yet? Are you carrying the weight of the world yet? And you know that I’m going to ask you in a little while to carry the traditional burdens of Lent, right? The prayer, the fasting, the almsgiving. Are your backs about to break?

You may rest assured that I am not about to give you that false nugget of non-biblical wisdom about God not giving us more than we can handle. That’s just something people say when they don’t know what to say or don’t know how to help. But what I will tell you is what the Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth after giving them his list of the negative consequences of being a follower of Jesus. Remember what he said? That he had also experienced “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” in the midst of living out a public piety. The burden of Christ has its costs, yes, but it also has its benefits. And our more earthly burdens? Caring for a child or an elder is priceless time you’ll never have again. High family expectations can lead to high individual achievement. Physical limitations can make us more compassionate toward others who suffer. Our taxes pay for services like roads, bridges, and public education that make our lives easier. Our service to the church offers us spiritual riches beyond our imagination. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not simply trying to make lemonade out of lemons. I am trying to show how easy it is to look at our life’s burdens as negatives, when the truth is much more complex and mysterious. “We are treated as impostors,” Paul concludes, “and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” This is the mystery of the great imposition of faith we celebrate with the imposition of ashes.

You’ve probably heard about the phenomenon called Post-Traumatic Stress in which a person who has experienced or observed a traumatic event is unable to file the experience of the event into their long term memory, and it remains in the part of the brain that processes short-term memories and so they constantly relive the experience through flashbacks, nightmares, and other coping mechanisms. It’s a serious problem for military service members who have seen combat duty, first responders who have witnessed accidents, children who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, and so many other people who have been subject to emotional or physical trauma. The good news is that increasingly, there are more and better treatments for PTSD, and people are able to overcome these traumas and live with the experiences appropriately filed away in the past. The even better news is that there is a growing body of evidence that shows that in addition to post-traumatic stress, people frequently experience post-traumatic growth, that as a result of what they’ve suffered, they’ve grown and changed for the better. This is not just silver-lining thinking. This is acknowledging that we may not be able to avoid what is imposed upon us by others, but that the storyline from that traumatic moment on is not fixed once and for all in suffering and deprivation, but open to an infinite number of possible new and healthy directions.

Lent is not exactly a traumatic event, but it does involve the divine imposition of a burden, the storyline of which is also not fixed once and for all in suffering and deprivation, but open to an infinite number of possible new and healthy directions. Yes, we consent to the imposition of ashes, and we choose whether or not to adopt a Lenten discipline of some kind, and dedicate ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. God is not going to punish us if we don’t. But if we don’t allow ourselves to be imposed upon by God in this way, we’ll miss out on the growth that’s the point of the experience. You’ll never know what amazing spiritual benefits might come of your decision to accept God’s imposition on your life for these next forty days, benefits like “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” May tonight’s ashes be both a burden and a blessing on you this Lent. Amen.