Vol I No. 7
The Christian Year

Preparing for Ash Wednesday

by The Rev. Dr. Peter Toon

People ask me: Why does The Book of Common Prayer (1662) delay the required Prayer (Collect) on Fasting during Lent to the First Sunday in Lent when it should, apparently, by rights, be prayed on the First Day of Lent, which is the previous Wednesday?

Here is the answer!

The Collect for the first Sunday is addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ and begins with a reference to fasting,

O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory…..

In contrast, the Collect appointed for Ash Wednesday is addressed to the Father and contains no reference to fasting:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that 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 answer to the question of why no reference to fasting in the Ash Wednesday Collect is as follows:

Back in the fifth and six centuries when the Christian Year, with its Collects, Epistles and Gospels, was created, Lent began on the Sunday which was called Quadragesima, for it was about 40 days before Easter ( with the previous Sundays being named Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima—roughly 70, 60 & 50 days before Easter). Only later was the beginning of Lent put back to the previous Wednesday to make it an exact 40 days, when the Sundays are not counted. So in the tradition of the medieval Church of England, although Lent began literally forty days (excluding Sundays) before Easter on the previous Wednesday (called Ash Wednesday), the Collect for the First Sunday testified to (and historically belonged to) an earlier period when Lent actually began on the Sunday which was 40 days or so before Easter. So worshippers need to know the Collect for Quadragesima, as they actually hear the Collect for Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent!

Now back to the special Prayer for Ash Wednesday which is to be repeated every day throughout Lent.

This was composed by Archbishop Cranmer, using as his base, the Latin Collect prayed at the benediction of the ashes on Ash Wednesday in the medieval English Church. Before the ashes were laid upon the heads of the members of the congregation the priest said, “Remember, man, that thou art ashes [dust] and unto ashes [dust] shalt thou return.”

Here is the old English Latin Collect used with the ashes in an English translation, which seeks to preserve the style of the original:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost not impute the sins of men by reason of their penitence; who also dost succour those who labour in necessity; Vouchsafe to bless [+] and sanctify [+] these ashes, which thou has appointed us to bear upon our heads after the manner of the Ninevites, in token of humiliation and holy devotion, and in order to the washing away of our offences; and, by this invocation of thy holy name, grant that all those that shall bear them upon their heads, to implore thereby thy mercy, may obtain from thee both the pardon of all their offences, and also grace so to begin today their holy fasts, that on the day of Resurrection, they may be counted worthy to approach to the holy Paschal feast, and hereafter to receive everlasting glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A final word is in order. Lent, of course, is not about historical research but is about devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. May our abstinence and fasting in Lent be adorned in Gospel righteousness.

The Reformers dropped the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday in order to avoid superstition and misunderstanding. Today some churches have restored their use believing that their symbolism can be rightly appreciated in this time and place.

–The Rev. Dr. Peter Toon, January 2008 Sexagesima