Death Imposing: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Did it catch you off guard yesterday? That black smudge on a forehead, probably sometime after the noon hour? Your first impulse was to tell the coworker or stranger or friend that there was something on their forehead. Maybe you did say that, or maybe you remembered–Ash Wednesday. AshThat black smudge was actually a cross, and that someone had been to an Ash Wednesday worship service, a centuries old tradition where worshippers are marked with ash, and hear some version of these words: “Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but Jesus is alive, so trust in him.”

The moment in the worship service when this happens, when those gathered move forward, and someone looks them in the eyes and says those words, and they receive that black, smudgy cross, that moment is called the imposition of ashes. It’s a churchy kind of phrase, to be sure. It’s also a true one, because the ashes remind us of our own mortality, that we are are thrown, hurled even, towards death (thanks, Heidegger, I guess). Death is on our horizon, and that is an imposition indeed, like no other. Death does impose itself, like a houseguest who stays an extra day without doing the extra dishes. Death means to impose, and is not really sorry about it, because death can do no other than show up at the wrong time, stay too long, mess with our carefully crafted cheer, stink up the place. That’s what death does.

And there’s a strange grace in it, in that imposing. At least, there is grace if we allow for this imposition. Because we’re trained to not let ourselves be imposed upon in this way, to kick death to the curb, clean up the dishes, and to apply a fresh coat of cheer veneer. Ahem, Botox. And Burpees. And, “she’s passed on.” And the Red Carpet, but definitely not the one in the entry hall in the care facility, the one that leads to those rooms with those old bodies, without luster, life waning. With Lady Macbeth, we shout at imposer death: “Out, da%#’$ spot! Out, I say!”

I’ve been sick this week so I’ve been binging on Netflix, including Season 1 of The Crown. In Episode 9, an 80 year old Winston Churchill is forced to sit for a portrait commissioned by Parliament. ChurchillAnxious throughout the process that the artist will be “accurate” rather than “true,” Churchill ultimately rejects the painting of the scowling, overweight, frail politician revealed in the artist’s rendering. Prior to the painting being set fire in the garden, the following conversation occurs:

Churchill: “It is cruel!”

Painter: “Death is cruel! If you see decay, it’s because there’s decay; if you see frailty, it’s because there’s frailty. I can’t be blamed for what is. And I refuse to hide and disguise what I see. If you’re engaged in a fight with something, then it’s not with me. It’s with your own blindness.”

Churchill wanted no ashes on his forehead, no words about returning to dust, no imposition of accuracy. “Out, da%#’$ Imposer! Out I say!”

The scene reeks with our own autobiographies. Which is why we need Ash Wednesday, bursting our Botox bubbles. Yes, we need the “but Jesus is alive, so trust in him,” but this “but” can only follow the imposition. The but means nothing if there is no preceding clause, no being marred by that smudge.

Death does impose; it can do no other. We could stand a little imposition, a measure of decay’s certainty, a dose of frailty’s steady march. We are all ashen. So be it. But, Jesus. For he too was from dust, and returned to it. And then. Then. Death may impose, but it cannot remain.


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  1. Great read Jeff! It is a good reflection on the time and effort that goes into the physical body, which can be so important but is often over emphasized, versus time that is spent to grow the soul and invest in knowing Jesus. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Rhonda Blinne says

    Thank you again, Jeff, for your thoughtful, truthful discourse re the ugly imposition of Death on the human race!

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