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Dwelling in Impossibility

By Scott Bader-Saye


At lunch today, a student said, “If you are going to talk about life, you have to talk about death.” I think she’s right. Ash Wednesday is one of the days we talk about death. We talk not just with words but with the act of imposition. We are imprinted with the dust that is our nature (“you are dust”) and our destiny (“to dust you shall return”).

I am reminded of the many crosses my forehead has known – the chrism of baptism, the anointing for healing, the once-a-year birthday blessing, and the ashes that mark my mortality. It is this latter mark that I experience most regularly and profoundly. As the ashes are imposed, I feel the materiality of ash on forehead – not like water or oil, not smooth but faintly abrasive, not silent but with the sound of a slight scrape. My flesh partakes of death as I am told to remember my mortality. My flesh samples its own future state – ash, dust.

To say that this experience is an “imposition” is, I think, to evoke various meanings that sidle up to each other. A liturgical imposition can be a moment of grace, as in the laying on of hands or oil. But an imposition can also be an awkward interaction, as when we visit out-of-town friends and are afraid that we might have overstayed our welcome. An imposition can be a burden, a worry, a bother, as when an aging parent says, “I don’t want to be an imposition.” The imposition of hands and oil is paired with the imposition of ashes; grace joined to bother; gift wed to burden.

The imposition of ashes is chosen (let’s face it, you could stay home) and even welcomed, because we understand that without a full appreciation of our mortality, we will not begin to know the impossible joy of resurrection.

When I was a teenager, I performed magic shows for children’s birthday parties (and if you ask my goddaughter, you will find that I sometimes still do). I learned rather quickly that children under the age of six were not good audiences. They simply didn’t know what was impossible. Pull a dove out of a silk handkerchief – not amazing. Make their card disappear and reappear in their pocket – not amazing. Cut a rope and restore it to one piece – not amazing. They might want to hold the dove, bend the cards, or play with the scissors (bad idea), but they were not amazed at the illusions, because they just didn’t fully appreciate how the world worked – specifically, what was impossible.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of what is impossible. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. This is our beginning and our ending. This is how the world works. Dead things don’t come to life. Only when we understand the metaphysics of death and life do we begin to see that resurrection is the impossible possibility. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. The journey of Lent does indeed lead toward Easter, but for now, we live in the impossibility of it all. Not yet ready to be amazed.


What do you feel, think, experience when you receive the imposition of ashes?

What practices help you move from Ash Wednesday to Easter?

Does Easter still amaze you?

Dr. Scott Bader-Saye joined the seminary faculty as the Helen and Everett H. Jones Chair in Christian Ethics and Moral Theology in 2009 and has served as academic dean since 2013.

His current research centers on theological readings of gender and transgender. Other research interests include economy, sexuality, political theology, virtue ethics, and interfaith dialogue. He teaches the core Theological Ethics courses for all degree programs. He is author of Formed by Love (2017), Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (2007), and Church and Israel After Christendom (1999/2005). He has contributed to The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (2006) and The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (2006) and has published widely in theological journals and magazines.

Dr. Bader-Saye helped found and lead Peacemeal, a missional Episcopal community in Scranton, PA, served on the Episcopal Church Executive Council Economic Justice Loan Committee, currently serves on the Gathering of Leaders Steering Committee, and is active as a teacher and parishioner at St. Julian of Norwich Episcopal Church, a mission in northwest Austin.


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