The season of Lent is almost here, and it begins with Ash Wednesday. This post offers a brief look back at the classic Anglican liturgy for Ash Wednesday, with suggestions for how its theology can inform Ash Wednesday services today using other prayer books.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer makes Ash Wednesday distinctive in three ways.
First, the proper collect for Ash Wednesday is used throughout the entire season of Lent (all the way to Easter Even in the 1662 BCP), which means it is the most-used collect in the Prayer Book. This collect is a straightforward prayer for the conversion of the heart:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition, p. 87)
Second, the 1662 Prayer Book appoints all seven of the penitential psalms to be read on Ash Wednesday: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
Third, the 1662 Prayer Book has a special service just for Ash Wednesday, called the “Commination” (which means “threatening”). This service starts with incredible severity and bleakness: a ritual recitation of curses, mostly from Deuteronomy, that apply the law of God to our hearts. Next comes a homily that starts with law and judgment, and then pivots to the grace and mercy of God. Then the priest leaves the chancel, kneeling with the people in the nave and reciting together Psalm 51 as a prayer of corporate confession. But the service doesn’t end there. All of Psalm 51 is read—including the joy of the forgiven sinner—and then the service concludes with an emphasis on the peace of the forgiven child of God. What follows the Commination is a service of Holy Communion.
For most Anglicans and Episcopalians today, this will all be surprising. There are no ashes. There is no emphasis on mortality. There is a lot of emphasis on sin, but there is an arc of the services that is basically the arc of the prodigal son: you begin far from home, in the pigsty, but you end feasting in the Father’s house. That is a very different way to begin Lent, and it puts the kibosh on any notion that you’re going to earn God’s favor by hard work and self-denial.
If you are not using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, how can its theology inform how you think about and plan an Ash Wednesday service? One thing to do is to unpack this logic in the sermon. Another thing to do is to exhibit this logic in the hymns chosen, with an emphasis on penitence at the end and forgiveness and joy at the end. If permitted by your rubrics to extend a reading, you could include all of Psalm 51, to gain the full logic of penitence and restoration. You could follow the traditional Anglican practice of not having ashes—neither the BCP 1979 nor the ACNA BCP 2019 requires them—or find ways of decentering them. And you could follow the Ash Wednesday liturgy with a Communion service (expressly contemplated in both of the prayer books just mentioned).
Whichever of these methods you might use, the main point is to begin Lent with the right mindset. It is not a matter of stacking up credits with God. It is a time for unstinting confession, which is matched and exceeded by the unstinting grace of God, which we then respond to with gratitude, accepting the disciplines of Lent as a gift for those who are already sons of God residing in the Father’s house.
Additional reading: if you’d like to read more about Ash Wednesday in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, two essays are Liam Beadle’s “No Imposition: The Commination and Lent,” and my own “Ashes in a Time of Plague.”
Samuel Bray is the John N. Matthews Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.