when the saints impose


“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” were the words uttered as ashes were smudged in the sign of the cross upon my forehead (recalling God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19).  The imposition of ashes has been a longstanding Christian tradition, marking the beginning of a season of contemplation and sobriety: Lent.  The ashes are formed in the shape of a cross: a reminder of Christ’s solidarity with the conflicted, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. As these words make clear, we are marked by our own poverty in death, sin, and disease.

This tradition of the ancient Christian church dates back into the 10th century.  Ashes, a symbol of penitence and purification (see Numbers 19:9, 17; Hebrews 9:13; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13), serve as a sign of sorrow and regret.  (Penitence was a means of re-entry into the life of the Church when grave sins had been committed.) And the ashes serve to remind us that we are mortal: that we are not self-created, and that we will ultimately meet our maker.  They are a sign of accountability; a mark of culpability.  In this sense, the ashes really do serve as an imposition (the laying on of a burden or obligation).

But the words themselves do more than just remind me of my own guilt and subsequent mortality: they are not, after all, really my ashes.  Instead, they impose in the sense that they mark me with a certain form of authority—authorized, if you will, by the bodies of those who have come before and constitute the very materiality of our being and context of our faith.  As the apostle so aptly described it “I bear on my body the marks of Christ” (Galatians 6:17).  And in a very real sense, the marks of Christ are eschatologically borne by the entirety of the Christian body—the saints of the past, present, and future.  The ashes become the occasion of praise and thanksgiving.

But they impose in another way: when we commit infidelity against the Christian body in its fullness–those whose bodies constitute the dust from when we are created (the past), who force us to get our hands dirty (in the present), and those whose dust we become (the future)–we are exposed for the impostors we are.    

I am reminded of Gregory of Nyssa’s atonement theory in this sense.  By Gregory’s account, the illegitimate gasping for power by claiming authority over an Innocent (that is, Jesus of Nazareth) exposed the Devil’s true nature–in this account, sin is exposed for what it is and collapses in upon itself.  Such is the nature of Christians who bear the marks of the saints, but fail to live up to their calling (the calling and guidance from our past, and the trajectories of our faith and actions into the future)–they are exposed as illegitimate, and their systems and facades implode with the weight of their own falsehood.

The saints are a real imposition. They refuse to allow us to drift into a private spiritual solipsism; we are forced to acknowledge from whence we come, and the trajectory of where we are headed;  and in that sense, we are forced with the staggering gravity of the present.  



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