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Ash Wednesday

Let us pray (in silence) [for grace to keep Lent faithfully.]


Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

God loves everything into existence. The book of Wisdom 11:23-12:1 reads: “You [God] are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. For your immortal spirit is in all things.”

The words in italics above have formed the introit of the Ash Wednesday eucharist from at least the Sarum Missal to this day. Creation – redemption – divinisation is not merely God’s recovery plan after a false start; this is God’s one symphony with three tunes playing essentially together in harmony.

From the time of the early church, Lent had three focuses: (1) the final, intense preparation for those to be baptised at the Easter Vigil, (2) a period leading to restoration for those alienated from the church, the Christian community, (3) a time of preparation for all the faithful leading up to the annual celebration of the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. “Giving something up for Lent” is neither foremost in this early church schema, nor, in the sixth century Rule of St Benedict (see Chapter 49 below) in which he echoes the teachings of St Leo the Great, St John Chrysostom and others. Lent for Benedict is what the whole year should be like. Lent, hence, is the time to do more perfectly what one does habitually all the time. In the case of his communities: prayer, holy reading, compunction of heart – only after these three is abstinence mentioned. And abstinence, in the early church, is primarily abstinence from sin – to fast without fasting from sin is not really Christian fasting, and to “enjoy food while having no taste for sin is a far better kind of fasting” ( John Chrysostom, Sermon 44:2)

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew 6 provides the essential dimensions of our Lenten disciplines: prayer (God), fasting (self, the environment, creation), almsgiving (others).

Cranmer wrote a new collect for the 1549 Prayer Book, shifting the emphasis from fasting to penitence. The Sarum Collect was:

Grant, we beseech, Lord, to your faithful people, that they may undertake the sacred solemnities of the fasts with fitting piety, and that they see them through with undisturbed devotion.

Cranmer’s preamble drew from the prayer for the blessing of the ashes and clearly the introit (above). His petition is sourced in Psalm 51, traditionally associated with this day (and also familiar to Cranmer as one of the daily morning psalms following the scheme of St Benedict):

ALMIGHTYE and everlastyng God, whiche hatest nothyng that thou haste made, and doest forgeve the sinnes of all them that be penitente; Creat and make in us newe and contrite heartes, that wee worthely lamentyng oure synnes, and knowlegyng our wretchednes, maye obtaine of thee, the God of all mercye, perfect remission and forgevenes; thorough Jesus Christ.

“Remission” has tradtitionally refered to “debts”, and “forgiveness” to offenses, a distinction lost in the NZ translation but not in BCP(USA) and CofE’s Common Worship:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all (CofE 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 you (CofE: receive from you), the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through …

This collect, rather than last Sunday’s, is obviously appropriately used from Ash Wednesday until first evening prayer of Sunday Lent 1. A rubric to this effect is found in the BCP USA 1892 and Scottish 1637. This site does not encourage having more than one collect as the opening prayer of the Eucharist as suggested by 1662, 1928. If you want to use this collect daily until Maundy Thursday, it would replace rather than be added to any other collect. Alternatively it can be used to conclude the Prayers of the People or as the Prayer after Communion.


Rule of Benedict Chapter 49: On the Observance of Lent

(normally read: Mar. 31 – July 31 – Nov. 30)

Although the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance, yet since few have the virtue for that, we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the negligences of other times.

And this will be worthily done if we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service, as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.

Thus everyone of his own will may offer God “with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6) something above the measure required of him.

From his body, that is he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting; and with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.

Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval.

For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward.

Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot’s approval.

[This is Doyle’s 1948 translation. The Rule of St. Benedict was written by a man, for communities of men, using masculine language. Over the centuries, however, the same Rule has also guided the lives of many women. Although RB1980 is also a commonly used translation, Doyle’s language is probably still the best known. Commonly now his work is adapted with odd chapters in a “masculine” and even chapters in a “feminine” reading] As with much in the Rule of Benedict there is great benefit in applying this to our ordinary life beyond monastery walls by changing “monastery” to parish, school, family, etc. “abbot” to parent, pastor, spiritual director, etc.