The Time Factor – Ash Wednesday

Several weeks ago, TKT asked my opinion regarding the celebration of the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday.  Our corporate memory is so short, that few people probably realize that The Episcopal Church and her mother, The Church of England, have had a long-standing, tenuous relationship with Ash Wednesday from the very beginning.  Eucharistic Propers exist for Ash Wednesday even as far back as 1549, the service for Ash Wednesday is something of a moving target.


In 1549, the office is entitled
commonly called

And it carries within the opening paragraph a nod to the ideal celebration of public penetence, with the realization that for several centuries the practice had been so polluted that time was needed to heal old wounds:

Brethren, in the prymitiue churche there was a godlye disciplyne, that at the begynnyng of lente suche persones as were notorious synners, were put to open penaunce, and punished in this worlde, that theyr soules myght bee saued in the day of the lord. And that other admonished by theyr example, might be more afrayed to offende. In the steede whereof until the saide disciplyne maye bee restored agayne ; (whiche thynge is mufche to bee wyshed,) -it is thoughte good, that at thys tyme (in your presence) shoulde bee read the general sentences of goddes cursyng agaynste impenitente sinners, gathered out of the xxvii Chapter of Deuteronomie, and other places of  scripture. And that ye shoulde aunswere to euery sentence. Amen : To. thentente that you beeyng admonished of the greate indignacion of God agaynste sinners : may the rather be called to earneste and true repentaunce, and maye walke more Warely in these daungerous dayes, fleyng from suche. vices, for the whiche ye affirme with your owne moiithes : the curse of god to be due.

For those of you who can’t read Old English, that reads:

Brethren, in the primitive church there was a godly discipline, that at the beginning of lent such persons as were notorious sinners, were put to open penitence, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the lord.  And that other admonished by their example, might be more afraid to offend.  In the stead whereof until the said discipline may be restored again; (which thing is much to be wished) – it is thought good, that at this time (in your presence) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gather out of the xxvii chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of scripture.  And that ye should answer to every sentence Amen: To the end that you being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners: may the rather be called to earnest and true repentance, and may walk more warily in these dangerous day, fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths: the curse of God to be due.

That portion is bold is the money line: until Ash Wednesday can be redeemed from the clutches of Rome, we will say the words of Scripture and ignore the rituals of the Church.  As time went by, it became clear that it would take quite a while before there was enough water under the bridge to restore to its fullness the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  So, where it existed as a separate office (In 1552 and 1662 the name was changed to imply a wider usage than just on the first day of Lent.  The first American Prayer Book of 1789 omitted the service entirely, holding onto the prayers as a part of the Great Litany (Hatchett, 220)), the Office for the First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday, had neither a place for the Eucharist, nor the Imposition of Ashes.  Until, that is, 1979, when, in a nod to the growing tendency to celebrate the Eucharist every time two or three were gathered, the Office and the Propers for the Day were combined to form the Ash Wednesday liturgy we find on page 264 of the Book of Common Prayer.  I’ll let the great Marion Hatchett explain the reasoning.

“The Penitential Office had fallen out of use because it seemed redundant prior to the Eucharist in which substantial penitential material of similar general nature was invariably required; yet many felt the need of a special service for Ash Wednesday.  Unauthorized forms, which frequently included the use of ashes, had come into use and seemed to meet a real pastoral need.  In the present revision [1979], therefore, a special liturgy of the word is provided for Ash Wednesday, including the option of the imposition of ashes as a sign of mortality and penitence.” (Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, pg. 220)

*** Which brings me, finally, back to my point.  The rubrics in the 1979 service allow for the Ash Wednesday liturgy to stand on its own, “When Communion follows, the service continues with the Offertory,” and hence TKT’s question.  I put the question out of Twitter and had various responses.  One in particular made me ponder, and it came from my friend Evan, who tweeted, “I’ve always wondered why it’s a fast day yet we feast on Jesus. But I think the collect for AW implies yes to HE.”  He went on to say, “it’s a collect of repentance and redemption. Need both. Only GoodFri tells 1/2 of story. AW is still resurrection.”

So, I went back to the Collect for Ash Wednesday, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing 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 obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

While I tend to agree with Evan, the Collect does imply both judgement and grace (or to use his words, “repentance and redemption”) I think that the season of Lent encourages us to slow down and sit in that place of repentance for a while.  I think that perhaps leaving the Ash Wednesday liturgy, having received ashes but not yet ready to receive the Eucharist is a good thing.  Ash Wednesday is four days until The First Sunday in Lent, the first mini-Easter of the season.  Coming back to the rail, having spent four days in thoughtful reflection on sin, repentance, and redemption, perhaps we are more able to realize the Holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood.  That is my hope, at least, and why I’m glad that this year, we are taking the allowances of the rubrics and holding off on the Eucharist until Sunday.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


One thought on “The Time Factor – Ash Wednesday

  1. Pingback: On the Role of Priests | Draughting Theology

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