Ashes in a Time of Plague

“Thy mercy is over all thy works, and therefore also over us, who alas by our sins have defaced thy Workmanship, but thou canst repair as well as make; and thy mercy is equal to thy might.”—Thomas Comber[1]

Earlier this year, Ash Wednesday came and went without most Americans thinking of the coronavirus. Soon afterwards it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading in the United States, and that it was a disease of striking ferocity. But this next Ash Wednesday will be different. It will be the first one in a society that has been changed by the pandemic.

Before it comes, we can expect to hear many times that the imposition of ashes is especially appropriate now, because it reminds us of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But for some, the ashes may feel out of place. If the toll this winter continues to be grim, we will not need to remember that we are dust. We will remember. We are reminded daily of our mortality by this plague.

There is something to both of these perspectives. Whatever view one takes, this year is likely to feel different. Amid all the dislocation of our usual practices, this Ash Wednesday gives a chance to reconsider what the day is for.

Among Anglicans, many probably assume that ashes on Ash Wednesday have always been part of our tradition. But that assumption would be misplaced. For hundreds of years after the Reformation the imposition of ashes was unheard of in any service of the Church of England or her daughter churches, and none of the prayer books through these centuries make any room for the practice. The first prayer book to authorize imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, “after a four-hundred-year absence from official Anglican rites,”[2] was the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer 1979.[3]

Ash Wednesday is a major day in the classic edition of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP 1662). But in the prayer book’s special service for Ash Wednesday, there are no ashes. How can it be Ash Wednesday without ashes?

This essay considers that question. There is much it will not do. This essay will not argue that imposition of ashes is inherently good or bad; it will not say that all churches, or none, should use this medieval practice. It will not situate the absence of ashes within the larger theology of ceremony reflected in the Anglican Formularies—a theology which constantly pushes back on any notion that grace is conveyed automatically without faith, and which emphasizes decency, edification, minimalism, antiquity, and the authority of the church.[4] Nor will this essay take up the possible socio-cultural and technological causes for the late modern surge in this practice among Protestants in the United States, including the curious fact that the imposition of ashes appears so often in stock photos of liturgical worship.

Instead, this essay will attempt something more modest. I will describe the structure of a prayer book Ash Wednesday, with particular attention to one service at the heart of that day. That service holds the clue to why there are no ashes in a prayer book Ash Wednesday. (In this essay, “prayer book” refers to the BCP 1662.[5])

You might find this alternative compelling. Or you might not. But for those who are already burdened with ever-present reminders of our vulnerability, a prayer book Ash Wednesday may be the way of peace.

The distinctiveness of Ash Wednesday in the prayer book

The title of this day is “The First Day of Lent commonly called Ash Wednesday.”[6] It is distinctive in the prayer book in several ways.

First, it is the only day in the entire year which receives its own special service. That service is called “The Commination”—a word derived from a Latin word for a “threatening.” If a church used the full complement of Ash Wednesday services laid out in the prayer book, it would have four services in the morning, one right after another: Morning Prayer, Litany, Commination, and Holy Communion (or Ante-Communion). Later in the day would be said Evening Prayer.

Second, Ash Wednesday is one of only six days in the entire year to receive proper psalms instead of the psalms that would be said in the monthly psalm cycle. The others are preeminent days that emphasize the work of Christ: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Day, Ascension Day, and Whitsunday.[7] The proper psalms for Ash Wednesday are quite consciously chosen so that the traditional seven penitential psalms will all be said this day: three at Morning Prayer (6, 32, 38), one in the Commination (51), and three at Evening Prayer (102, 130, 143).[8]

Third, the collect of the day for Ash Wednesday is said more often than any other proper collect in the prayer book.[9] It is said from Ash Wednesday through Easter Even. (The second-most frequently said proper collect is the one that ties together the season of Advent.)

Fourth, this day has a unique connection to the opening sentences at Morning and Evening Prayer. Of those eleven sentences, more than half are read in their biblical context in the Ash Wednesday propers.[10] Ash Wednesday might therefore be said to be the key that is supposed to unlock these sentences, which are the door to Morning and Evening Prayer as said daily throughout the entire year.

The contents of the Commination

Morning and Evening Prayer are read the same way on Ash Wednesday as on any other day (proper psalms and collect of the day excepted). The Communion service does not have a proper preface for Ash Wednesday, but it does have a proper collect, epistle, and gospel, so it is distinctive on this day. But by far the largest change to the prayer book pattern is the Commination, which is required for Ash Wednesday, though it may also be said at other times.[11]

The Commination service is the heart of Ash Wednesday in the prayer book. Its point is to bring the worshipper to a place of repentant prayer—not pretending, not dissembling, but open, true, and earnest repentance. To achieve that goal, the service has the following elements:

• a brief exhortation about the discipline of penance

• a series of curses, to which the people respond “Amen”

• a pre-written homily

• Psalm 51

• the Kyrie

• the Lord’s Prayer

• versicles and responses

• two prayers

• an anthem

• the peace

The very last element was added in the 1662 revision, but almost every other word of the service comes from Archbishop Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer (1549). Some parts were taken by Cranmer directly from the Sarum Rite, one of the service books used before the Reformation. Other parts were new compositions. Others were free adaptations.

As Sylvia Sweeney has aptly described it, Cranmer’s service was “developed in . . . appreciation for the beauty of the Sarum Rite for Ash Wednesday and its ancient derivatives,” while also being “rearticulated . . . in the firm conviction of Reformation principles.” [12] This service is “the basic frame for what would continue to be the Anglican Communion’s rite for Ash Wednesday until the twentieth century.”[13]

The best way to understand the structure of the Commination service is by thinking about the three-part movement that J.I. Packer[14] and Gavin Dunbar[15] have used in their expositions of the BCP 1662 services. At the start of his richly insightful exposition of the prayer book Communion service, Dunbar notes: “Inwardly, God’s grace elicits a triad of human responses whereby the grace revealed in Christ, and in the Gospel, is appropriated: repentance, faith, and those good works (especially of love), done in obedience to the Commandments, which are the fruits of a living faith, and which testify to gratitude for this grace.”[16] The parts of this triad are given various labels, but whichever ones are used, “by the mid-sixteenth century, this triad was a commonplace of Protestant orthodoxy.”[17] The labels used here are the alliterative guilt, grace, and gratitude.

The Commination: the first movement

The Commination service has three movements. The first consists of the exhortation, curses, and homily. This movement is from guilt to grace. But make no mistake, it is overwhelmingly about guilt.

The exhortation begins by noting the disciplines of the early church, and it offers as a substitute a series of curses, taken largely from Deuteronomy 27. That itself will be surprising to readers today, but even more surprising may be what comes next: the congregation is instructed that after each of the curses it should answer “Amen”—exactly as the people of Israel were instructed in Deuteronomy 27. The point of these affirmations, says the exhortation, is to “be moved to earnest and true repentance.”

Next come the curses themselves (especially taken from Deut. 27:15-26[18]). There are ten, with some overlap and correspondence with the Ten Commandments. But in the ten curses there is less emphasis on worship and more on sins against our neighbors, and especially against those who are weak. “Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way,” says the priest. “Amen,” say the people. “Cursed is he that perverteth the judgement of the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.” Again, “Amen.” There is a denunciation of pride and trust in human strength, recalling our Lord’s first great commandment: “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, and taketh man for his defence, and in his heart goeth from the Lord.”[19]

Here there is no hint of grace. Not even the gracious notes in the Ten Commandments are expressly sounded—there is no “who brought thee out of the land of Egypt,” no “mercy unto thousands,” no act of God hallowing the seventh day. It is all curses all the time, with the only breaks being the insistent ratification by the people themselves: “Amen.”[20]

After the exhortation and the curses comes the homily. It is a pre-written mini-sermon, one of several in the prayer book, and has been aptly called “evangelistic.”[21] It is a collection of dozens of biblical phrases, quotations, and allusions.[22] In the first part of the homily, God’s “dreadful judgement” is said to be “hanging over our heads and always ready to fall upon us”—there are anticipations of the famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards. Biblical imagery is pervasive. It is a kaleidoscope of pictures of judgment, many from the prophets, but also from John the Baptist and from Jesus. Scenes of judgment in the Old Testament are juxtaposed with ones in the New. Most chilling of all, perhaps, is an allusion to the closing of the door of the ark: “Then shall it be too late to knock, when the door shall be shut; and too late to cry for mercy, when it is the time of justice.”

By this point there has been a truckload of guilt: the exhortation to penance, the ten curses, and the first half of a homily that is holding before the congregation all the most vivid and arresting pictures and sounds of doom that can be collected out of the entire Bible.

Then comes a pivot: “Therefore.”

What follows is the second half of the homily, and it is a call to repentance grounded not in the extremity of divine judgment but the extravagance of divine mercy. Now we hear that it is “the day of salvation,” that “we have the light” and that in this light we see “the goodness of God” and “his endless pity,” which “promiseth us forgiveness of that which is past, if with a perfect and true heart we return unto him.” Here the imagery is a bit less dramatic—Dante and Milton could attest that it is easier to hold the reader’s attention with the infernal than the celestial. Yet there are still images, such as scarlet sins becoming white as snow, an easy yoke and a light burden.

Yet another change is that we are not alone. In the first half of the homily, we are outside—outside the ark, exposed to divine judgment if we will not enter in. In the second half of the homily, God is calling to us. Now we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins.” He is the one “wounded for our offences, and smitten for our wickedness.”

This is no call to human passivity, however, and the verbs ring the changes on the repentance to which the people are called: take heed, believe, walk, turn, cast away, make,[23] turn, return, come, submit, walk, take, follow, be ordered, seek, serve. This movement toward God should not be a faltering step in doubtful hope. We can stride towards him in sure confidence, for he “is the merciful receiver of all true penitent sinners,” and we can “assur[e] ourselves that he is ready to receive and most willing to pardon us.”

As Marion Hatchett recognized, this is “a homily proclaiming forgiveness to the repentant.”[24] Or, as Liam Beadle wrote in the journal of the English Prayer Book Society, Faith & Worship, “This is preaching of a singular quality. Here, in the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, is a sermon of the sort George Whitefield, William Grimshaw, and Henry Venn would go on to preach in the eighteenth century, and which would bring countless people in England to a living faith in Jesus Christ.”[25]

This evenly balanced homily—judgement and mercy, guilt and grace—comes to a stirring culmination. If we do this, namely repent and believe, then “Christ will deliver us from the curse of the law.” When the curses were read, the people said “Amen,” but that is not the last word. In Christ, those curses are a broken chain, an escaped prison, a sprung trap.[26]

One last image is summoned up in the homily—the day of judgment when some are set on the left hand and some on the right hand, the latter being given God’s “gracious benediction” and a command “to take possession of his glorious kingdom.” “Unto which,” the minister concludes, “may he vouchsafe to bring us all, for his infinite mercy. Amen.” This is the eleventh Amen in the service. Now at last the Amens for the curses are beginning to recede, like the waters after the Flood.

Here I am compelled to quote Beadle again:

If you visit the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, you will see that they are displayed against a black background. The idea is that their splendour is more magnificent when seen in the context of darkness. The same principle applies in the Commination service. The ‘cursings’ are chilling. God’s judgement is real. The service uses graphic imagery from the Bible to communicate just how serious our predicament is: ‘O terrible voice of most just judgement, which shall be pronounced upon them, when it shall be said unto them, Go, ye cursed, into the fire everlasting, which is prepared for the devil and his angels.’ But in the context of such a terrifying prospect, the gospel makes real sense. It is not only attractive; it is absolutely necessary.[27]

In short, the first movement of the Commination is from guilt to grace. Although the homily is balanced between these themes, the first movement as a whole is not. It strongly emphasizes judgment and guilt, and the curses are the most unmitigatedly punitive page of the entire prayer book. But the service is not done yet.

The Commination: the second movement

The second movement of the Commination consists of Psalm 51, and it is the emotional heart of the service: the priest dramatically moves to be among the people, the priest kneels, the clerks kneel, the people kneel, and all say the words of the psalm together, as if they were reciting a Litany but in unison.

In at least two ways this is unprecedented in the prayer book. First, this is the only time in any service that the priest moves, mid-service, to join the people in the nave. Second, at no other time in the entire year is a psalm said kneeling. It is a striking representation of the words of the prophet Joel from the Communion service on Ash Wednesday: “Gather the people; sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, and those that suck the breasts. Let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet. Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar . . . .”

In terms of the guilt/grace/gratitude triad, the psalm is neatly balanced, and it moves from guilt to grace to gratitude. This can be seen by looking more closely at the psalm’s structure.

As it appears in the prayer book, Psalm 51 contains three smaller cycles, or epicycles.[28] The first is verses 1-8. The second is verses 9-13. The third is verses 14-19.

In the first and second epicycles, the dominant note is confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness (verses 1-6, verses 9-12). Each of these epicycles ends, however, with a note of grace: either confidence in God’s forgiveness (verses 7-8) or a declaration of what will be done after the penitent is forgiven (verse 13).

The emphasis shifts in the third epicycle. In verses 14-19 only the first half verse is concerned with confession. In the rest of this epicycle, the dominant note is gratitude. Here are verses 14-19:

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou that art the God of my health; * and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.

Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord, * and my mouth shall show thy praise.

For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee, * but thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; * a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.

O be favourable and gracious unto Sion; * build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt offerings and oblations; * then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.

And then, to lay further stress on this culmination in praise and thanksgiving, the priest, clerks, and people all say together the Gloria Patri.

Thus the second movement of the service has guilt, grace, and gratitude, all balanced, and yet it also has a strong progression. It culminates in gratitude, praise, and thanksgiving.

The Commination: the third movement

The third movement in the Commination is from the Kyrie to the conclusion. It consists of seven elements:

• the Kyrie (now for the third time in the day)

• the Lord’s Prayer (now for the fourth time in the day)

• versicles

• the prayer beginning “O Lord, we beseech thee, mercifully hear our prayers”

• the prayer beginning “O most mighty God and merciful Father”

• the anthem, which begins “Turn thou us, O good Lord”

• the peace, which begins “The Lord bless us, and keep us”

This third movement, too, begins with confession: “Lord, have mercy upon us”; “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Or, in the language of the triad, guilt.

But then it shifts. In the remaining prayers, although there are requests (e.g., “Spare us”), but the major themes are salvation and grace. There is a repeated stress on the goodness, kindness, and mercifulness of God, who can be approached with confidence by all “who put their trust in thee.”

The versicles are the first of these elements awash with grace that complete the service. They are taken directly from Cranmer’s medieval sources, and they largely overlap with the versicles that appear in the Solemnization of Matrimony and the Visitation of the Sick. What is distinctive in the Commination is the third pair of versicles, which call for God’s help, deliverance, and mercy. These are not pleas from those outside the ark, but from those who already know his salvation: “Help us, O God our Saviour.”

Next comes a collect for forgiveness, for “it is now time to bind up the wounds of true Penitents.”[29] This collect is a translation of a Latin prayer from the Ash Wednesday service in the Sarum Rite. The textual change that Archbishop Cranmer makes from the medieval prayer is to add one word before “hear our prayers”: mercifully.[30] There are other changes: the prayer is moved from the beginning of the service to the end, the priest and clerks have moved into the nave with the people, and the Kyrie and Lord’s Prayer have been inserted before the versicles. The cumulative effect of these choreographic and structural changes is to make this collect one of absolution.[31]

The impression that this is an absolution is made certain by the wording of the prayer: that “those who confess their sins unto thee . . . by thy merciful pardon may be absolved.” God has heard the confession of the whole body of his people and is absolving all who are penitent.

The next prayer also borrows from a prayer in the Sarum Rite, but it is more thoroughly changed. This can be seen by closely comparing the two prayers. The Sarum prayer would be said right after holy water was sprinkled upon the ashes, when they were about to be distributed. That prayer began this way: “O God, who desirest not the death but the repentance of sinners.” The prayer book’s version instead piles high the phrases about God’s mercy and offer of salvation: “O most mighty God and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men and hatest nothing that thou hast made, who desirest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from his sin and be saved.”[32] And because these words echo the beginning of the absolution in Morning and Evening Prayer, the worshipper is immediately reminded of the absolution.

Not only is there a powerful intensification of divine mercy, but there is also a dramatic shift in the object of the prayer. Where the Sarum prayer turns to ask God’s blessing on the ashes, the prayer book prayer asks God’s blessing on us.[33] No longer do we ask God to “vouchsafe for thy lovingkindness to bless and sanctify these ashes which as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, we have determined to have placed upon our heads.”[34] Instead we ask: “Mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive and comfort us, who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins.” In the medieval prayer, we have determined to do something. In the prayer book, we are in a different state: grieved, wearied, burdened, but turning to the one who will not only forgive us, but “receive and comfort us.”

At this point the Sarum prayer draws out the hoped-for conclusion of God blessing and sanctifying the ashes: “that we whom thou hast warned that we are but ashes, and who know that we shall return to the dust as the recompense of our depravity, may be mercifully found worthy to receive the pardon of all our sins and the rewards which have been promised anew to them that repent.”[35] Note that the last action attributed directly to God is warning.

But the prayer book version once again overflows with the theme of divine mercy: “Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins.”[36] Because this is true of God—“therefore”—we ask him to spare us, but once again we assert our relationship to him: we call him “good Lord” (echoing the Litany), and we are “thy people, whom thou hast redeemed.” We are “vile earth and miserable sinners” (i.e., base bodies and sinners in need of mercy), but this is not pronounced as condemnation, but rather pleaded as a reason for us to be spared divine judgment. That is, we do not ask for a judgment in which we hope to be tried, weighed, and acquitted; instead, knowing our frailty, we say “enter not into judgement with us” (echoing a sentence in the daily offices). It is God who must “make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come” (echoing a versicle in the daily offices). In other words, there is a strong shift in the prayer book version toward divine presence, initiative, and mercy. The ashes have disappeared, and Archbishop Cranmer has put a profound statement of the gospel in their place.[37]

Next comes the anthem (called by that name in BCP 1549, and a favorite of early modern English composers[38]). It is one of only two anthems provided for a special day in the Book of Common Prayer; the other is Easter Day. The anthem is composed of phrases from the Psalms and the prophets, and it is said by all the people.

The anthem begins with another assertion that God must take the initiative: “Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned.” That note was caught by T.S. Eliot, who begins his poem “Ash Wednesday” with a denial of self-turning: “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn . . . .”

What remains in the anthem is an exaltation of God’s mercy. We are “thy heritage” and “thy people, who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying.” These do not earn God’s favor—we ask for his mercy “through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son” (a phrase added in the 1662 revision). And the focus is not on us: the one to whom we pray is “a merciful God,” “full of compassion,” “long-suffering,” “of great pity,” one who “sparest,” one who “thinkest upon mercy,” one whose “mercy is great.” Twice the Litany’s description of God as “good Lord” is used. And with one small phrase at the end, “the multitude of thy mercies,” the anthem recalls the beginning of Psalm 51: “Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness; according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.” From the beginning of Psalm 51 (at the start of the second movement) to the end of the anthem (near the end of the third movement), God has a “multitude of mercies.” He has not changed. But we have. We have arrived at a place of true, earnest, and repentant prayer. The service began with curses that we affirmed; it is ending with blessings that we receive.

Now at last we have arrived at the peace. Added to the prayer book in 1662, it is a perfect ending to the Commination. It is terse compared to the peace at the Communion service. It is simply: “The LORD bless us, and keep us; the LORD lift up the light of his countenance upon us, and give us peace, now and for evermore. Amen.

The words of this peace are a blend from Numbers 6:24-26 and the first verse of the Deus misereatur (Psalm 67). Note that it uses the first-person plural. The priest, still kneeling among the people at the Litany desk, does not say (with Aaron) “The LORD bless thee,” but “bless us.” That, too, contrasts with the benediction at the Communion. Again the corporate identity of God’s people is being emphasized. Just as priest and people knelt together in contrition for sin, and just as they knelt together to receive God’s absolution, so now they receive together the divine blessing.

The peace pronounced is abiding: “peace, now and forevermore.” Only one word is left in the service, and it is the people’s final Amen. Amen is the last word, not an Amen to the curses of the law, but an Amen to the blessings of the gospel.

Still, even though no more words are said, one more thing can be thought of as occupying the white space after the peace. As mentioned, the peace is partly drawn from the first verse of Psalm 67. For the worshiper who is familiar with that psalm, there is a delightful open-endedness about concluding the service with words drawn from its first verse. The mind might continue to run to the remaining verses of the psalm, which are summoned up as it were (by the figure of speech metalepsis):

That thy way may be known upon earth, * thy saving health among all nations.

Let the peoples praise thee, O God; * yea, let all the peoples praise thee.

O let the nations rejoice and be glad, * for thou shalt judge the folk righteously, and govern the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise thee, O God; * yea, let all the peoples praise thee.

Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, * and God, even our own God, shall give us his blessing.

God shall bless us, * and all the ends of the world shall fear him.

It is no accident that Psalm 67 is one of the psalms in the marriage service. Of Shakespeare’s plays, someone said a play is a tragedy if it ends with death and a comedy if it ends with marriage. The Commination, which started with the bleakness of curses and divine wrath, has moved to something very different—grace, peace, peace now, peace forevermore, and with this grace and peace there are hints of the marriage supper of the Lamb. The Commination is not a tragedy.

This culmination is even more emphatic when the Commination is followed by Holy Communion. Then we say the collect of the day, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,” and for all right receivers there is a sacramental fulfillment.[39] The words of Bishop John Jewel, quoting St. John Chrysostom, are fitting as we partake of the body and blood of our Savior on Ash Wednesday: “For this body’s sake thou art no longer dust and ashes.”[40]

Why no ashes in the prayer book?

It is time now to sum up. In the Commination, the first movement was from guilt to grace. The second was from guilt to grace to gratitude. The third was from guilt to grace. These movements, and their change in emphasis, can be graphically illustrated:

GUILT • grace

guilt • grace • gratitude

guilt • GRACE

The architecture of the service has repetition and progress—from guilt to grace, cursing to blessing, divine wrath to divine peace. This movement is even more pronounced when the Commination is preceded by the Litany and followed by Holy Communion.

And where are the ashes? Why were they absent from Anglican practice for centuries? The answer given here is that they simply had no place in the Ash Wednesday service of Commination.

In giving this answer, I do not mean to slight other reasons that motivated the English Reformers. For example, they were wary of blessing material objects, especially when many people saw that blessing as automatically conveying grace.[41] And they seem to have been concerned about what we might call the cognitive dissonance between the imposition of ashes and gospel of the day.[42] In the gospel, taken from Matthew 6, our Lord warns his disciples not to be like those who when they fast “disfigure their faces.” To the contrary, Jesus says, “when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father.” Similarly, the reading appointed for the epistle from Joel 2 says, “Rend your heart, and not your garments.”

Whatever other theological and ceremonial reasons there are for the traditional Anglican rejection of ashes, my point is simply this: there are no ashes in a prayer book Ash Wednesday, because they do not belong.

Ashes symbolize mortality and death,[43] but that is not a theme of the Commination service.[44] That service presents sin, not death, as the central issue.

Ashes also symbolize penitence, which most certainly is a theme of the Commination (and of Lent as a whole). But their imposition is in strong tension with the movement of the Commination service. For many worshippers, the imposition of ashes is the affective and visceral center of the service. The ashes are what they take with them.

But in the Commination, though we hear the curses, they are not ringing in our ears as we leave. There is a time to weep and a time to mourn. But by the end of the Commination, that time is gone. We have moved from law to gospel. We are granted the gift of peace, and with it perhaps a glimpse through the eyes of St. John the Divine, who saw a vision of a restored humanity, when each person in himself and all together are finally at peace, “and there shall be no more curse” (Rev. 22:1-5). And if the Commination is followed by the Communion, as the prayer book provides, then that sacramental nourishment and the ensuing peace are the end of the ascent.

This is not to deny that many find in ashes an aid to self-reflection in ordinary times; perhaps some would even find them such an aid in this time of suffering and mortality. Moreover, the imposition of ashes can be congruent with other Ash Wednesday services, especially ones in which the service has an arc from grace to guilt.[45]

Nor do I mean to deny that the start of the Commination is stern, cold, and bleak—almost unimaginably so for people in the twenty-first century. And for some in the eighteenth century, when one writer complained of the Commination that “the reading of it once a year is once too much.”[46]

Yet despite all this the Commination has unmined riches. It contains a startling drama of corporate confession, corporate forgiveness, and corporate blessing. Its denoument is glorious. “If parts of the service take our breath away with their stark pronouncement of God’s judgement, by the time we have reached the end of the service, we find ourselves addressing a loving heavenly Father who cares for us as his children.”[47] In the denoument of the Commination I suspect we learn why so many great English poets end their poems about Ash Wednesday with peace and joy: “I fear no more”;[48] a heart not “forgiven and cheer’d in vain”;[49] the “timely fruit of peace and love and joy”;[50] “Our peace in His will.”[51]

John Bunyan, who knew the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer (even while opposing its imposition), would write his most famous allegory with a similar structure: we end in heaven, but first we must start in the city of destruction, on the edge of a grimpen, the slough of despond. If conflict and turmoil, sin and war, loneliness and despair, seem all too familiar to us now in this time of plague, then the service begins exactly where we are. But it carries us away—if we are penitent—to a peace that passes understanding. By the end, but not at the beginning, we are ready to say with George Herbert, “Welcome dear feast of Lent.”[52]

In the ending of the Commination, especially when followed by Holy Communion, we have a different beginning for the season of Lent. If this season begins with ashes and mortality, we may see it as a time of suffering and sorrow that will culminate forty days later in the cross. But the Commination suggests a different journey. The cross is where we start. Yes, we are carried from judgment to forgiveness and peace, but all on Ash Wednesday. Ahead lies training and discipline. But in the prayer book, Lent is for the already forgiven.

  1. Thomas Comber, The Occasional Offices of Matrimony, Visitation of the Sick, Burial of the Dead, Church of Women and the Commination (1679), pp. 575-576.
  2. Ruth A. Meyers, Review, Anglican and Episcopal History, vol. 79, no. 3 (September 2010), at p. 305 (reviewing Sweeney, An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent).
  3. The optional prayer over the ashes in the BCP 1979 “is the first such prayer to appear in any authorized Anglican prayer book since the days of medieval Anglicanism.” Sylvia A. Sweeney, An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent (Peter Lang, 2010), p. 130.
  4. The central source is of course “Of Ceremonies,” but the general tenor is captured in this sentence from Saepius Officio (1897): “For such is the force of simplicity that it lifts men’s minds towards divine things more than a long series of ceremonies united by however good a meaning.”
  5. All quotations are from The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Samuel L. Bray & Drew Nathaniel Keane, eds., IVP Academic, 2021).
  6. The title dates to BCP 1549. Kenneth Stevenson suggests that “commonly called” refers to English vernacular usage, because “[t]he tradition of the Roman Missal does not actually use the term feria IV cinerum (‘the Wednesday of ashes’) until 1474.” Kenneth W. Stevenson, “Origins and Development of Ash Wednesday,” in Worship: Wonderful and Sacred Mystery (Pastoral Press, 1992), p. 178.
  7. Of these six days, Ash Wednesday is the only one for which there are no proper lessons, which has the effect of laying even greater stress on the psalm scheme.
  8. The proper psalms for Ash Wednesday are first appointed in the 1662 revision. For discussion, see Charles Whitworth, “The Penitential Psalms and Ash Wednesday Services in the Book of Common Prayer, 1549–1662,” French Journal of British Studies, XXII-1 (2017), pp. 1-9.
  9. The collect is: “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.” Compare the Wisdom of Solomon 11:24 and Psalm 51:10.
  10. Psalm 51:3, 9, and 17 are read in the psalm in the Commination. Joel 2:13 is in the reading for the epistle at Holy Communion (or Ante-Communion). Psalm 6:1 is in a proper psalm at Morning Prayer, while Psalm 143:2 is in a proper psalm at Evening Prayer. Still another sentence is drawn from the preaching of John the Baptist (St. Matthew 3:2), which is one source for the homily in the Commination—a connection that Lancelot Andrewes draws out in the peroration of his sermon on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 1623.
  11. Archbishop Grindal encouraged the use of the Commination not just before Lent but before Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Brian Cummings, ed., OUP, 2011), p. 744. Identical or similar injunctions were issued during Elizabeth’s reign by the bishops of Chichester, Hereford, Lincoln, and London. Donald Jay Martin, Ash Wednesday in Tudor England: A Study of Liturgical Revision in Context (Dissertation Submitted to the University of Notre Dame, Department of Theology, January 1978), pp. 137-138. Martin notes that Abp. Grindal’s dates for the saying of the Commination “merely followed the pattern of the traditional dates for the recital of the General Sentence [of excommunication] as codified by Archbishop Chichely in 1435.” Id. at p. 138.
  12. Sweeney, at p. 107; see Martin, at p. 121 (“The entire penitential service exhibits some of the characteristic techniques and sensitivies of the English liturgical revisers. Working out of intimate familiarity with the medieval traditions, they consolidated and abridged many of the familiar elements into a new synthesis. At the same time, the selection and composition of texts was constantly guided by the principle of the primacy of the scriptures, which was a cardinal point for reformers of every hue.”).
  13. Sweeney, at p. 107.
  14. J.I. Packer, The Gospel in the Prayer Book [publication info].
  15. Gavin Dunbar, “Like Eagles in this Life: A Theological Reflection on ‘The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion’ in the Prayer Books of 1559 and 1662,” in The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future (Prudence Dailey, ed., Continuum, 2011). Sylvia Sweeney also applies this triad to the Commination, though with a particular focus on the propers in the Communion service. Sweeney, at pp. 110-111.
  16. Dunbar, at p. 86.
  17. Id. at p. 87.
  18. On the omissions from Deuteronomy 27 and the additions from elsewhere in the Scriptures, see Liam Beadle, “No Imposition: The Commination and Lent,” Faith & Worship (Lent 2018), pp. 16-30, at p. 20-21.
  19. Compare Sirach 10:12, a favorite verse of St. Augustine: “The beginning of pride is when one departeth from God, and his heart is turned away from his Maker.”
  20. F. D. Maurice described the curses this way: “The Service draws no distinctions, enters into no refinements; it pronounces, in the words of God’s law, that he who takes any one of these courses, whatever his motives be for taking it, whatever the pleas to his conscience may be for it, whatever contrivances he may use not to bring his doings exactly within the letter of the prohibition, does yet, assuredly, put himself at a distance from God, and choose another service than His. He may fancy the molten image may promote his devotion; he may have much provocation to curse his father or mother; he may find it highly convenient to his own interest, and he thinks, to the public interest, to remove his neighbour’s landmarks; he may smite his neighbour secretly with the tongue or the pen, and not with the sword; he may propose to himself most religious ends in all these acts; every one of them may be done for the sake of advancing some principle which he believes to be necessary, or denouncing some error which he believes to be fatal. The result is the same: he is at war with the righteousness of the universe, he is out of fellowship with the living and true God.” Frederick Denison Maurice, The Church a Family: Twelve Sermons on the Occasional Services of the Prayer-Book (Parker: 1850), pp. 194-195.
  21. Beadle, at p. 21.
  22. Donald Jay Martin notes that homily’s “structure was similar to the scriptural catenae which were elaborated during the late patristic era.” Martin, at p. 119.
  23. Make appears in the homily in a quotation from Ezekiel 36, as God says to man, “Make you new hearts and a new spirit.” It appears again in the collect of the day, as man says to God: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts.”
  24. Marion J. Hatchett, “An Introduction to Liturgical Study,” St. Luke’s Journal of Theology (1972), at p. 101.
  25. Beadle, at p. 21. Many similar statements could be added. For example, Sylvia Sweeny writes: “The exhortation ends with a clear affirmation of God’s willingness to forgive the penitent in reponse to their repentance, through Christ’s advocacy, and as a result of the gracious, forgiving nature of the loving creator.” Sweeney, at p. 109. Alfred Barry wrote that the exhortation concludes with “the Gospel call to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Advocate, as ready to receive and willing to pardon, calling us to take His yoke upon us and find rest, promising us a place on His right hand and his blessing at the Great Day.” Alfred Barry, The Teacher’s Prayer Book (1882), p. 173. Thomas Comber wrote: “The words of this pious and pathetical discourse are generally the very words of Scripture, that so they may be more regarded coming from the mouth of God himself. The design of them is effectually to apply the fore-going threatnings in order to the Conversion of Sinners.” Comber, at pp. 554-555. Donald Jay Martin wrote: “The first part developed the themes of divine judgment and retribution against the impenitent sinner; the second portion emphasized the abundant mercy and forgiveness which was promised to any sinner, no. matter how sinful, who returned in repentance.” Martin, at p. 120. Ashley Null has said of the whole Commination, likely with an eye on the homily, that it “promised relief from God’s curses to those who repented in time.” Ashley Null, Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love (OUP, 2001), p. 241.
  26. See Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be.”
  27. Beadle, at pp. 21-22.
  28. To follow the discussion in this paragraph, it would be easier to be looking at Psalm 51 as it appears in the Psalter (with verse numbers).
  29. Comber, at p. 573.
  30. Cf. Vernon Staley, ed., The Sarum Missal in English: Part I (1911), p. 144.
  31. Although one can see the Kyrie and Lord’s Prayer as operating as the confession, one could also see the confession as the initial curses affirmed by the people. On that view, the Commination service starts with confession and ends with absolution, and the movement from the one to the other is the arc of the entire service.
  32. Here we find the “very same ancient phrases, rich in meaning, rich in encouragement, which form the ground-work of our petition in the Collect for the day.” J. S. Howson, Our Collects, Epistles, and Gospels (Hodder & Stoughton, 1886), p. 29.
  33. There is a parallel with the Communion service, where the Holy Spirit is invoked not on the bread and wine but on those who receive them.
  34. Staley, at p. 147.
  35. Staley, at p. 147.
  36. The phrase “thee only” is repeated from Psalm 51: “against thee only have I sinned.” It is a stunning reversal, for the only one against whom our sins have been directed turns out to be the only one who forgives.
  37. This sequence—absolution, then a prayer that extols the mercy of God and the good news of the gospel—matches the sequence in the Communion service, where the absolution is followed by the Comfortable Words.
  38. John Morehen, “The English Anthem Text, 1549–1660,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 117, no. 1 (1992), pp. 62-85, at p. 84.
  39. See Jared Tomlinson, “The Law on Our Hearts: Richard Hooker and Thomas Aquinas,” The North American Anglican (Apr. 24, 2020).
  40. John Jewel, “Reply to M. Harding’s Answer,” in The Works of John Jewel: The First Portion (Parker Society, 1845), p. 539.
  41. Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (OUP, 1950), p. 60. As Rowan Williams put it, the Anglican tradition is “Reformed Christian thinking” that, along with its affirmative commitments, is “suspicious . . . of a theology of the sacraments which appears to bind God too closely to material transactions (as opposed to seeing the free activity of God sustaining and transforming certain human actions done in Christ’s name).” Rowan Williams, Introduction, in Anglican Identities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), pp. 2-3.
  42. Shepherd, at p. 60; for a contrary view, see Martin, at p. 19.
  43. In the BCP 1979 and ACNA BCP 2019, the prayer before the imposition begins, “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth,” and the words of administration are taken from Genesis 3: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
  44. Beadle, p. 26: “Christian holiness finds its ground not in human mortality, but in the sure and certain hope of the new creation. As the Commination service tells us, Christ ‘will set us on his right hand, and give us the gracious benediction of his Father, commanding us to take possession of his glorious kingdom.’”
  45. The Commination service is revised or replaced in later Anglican prayer books. They tend to impede the movement from guilt to grace (BCP 1928), or even reverse its direction (BCP 1979 and ACNA BCP 2019).The BCP 1928, which does not authorize the imposition of ashes, has no exhortation, curses, and homily at the beginning; its penitential service begins with Psalm 51. Thus there is no first movement emphasizing guilt, and no homily offering the work of Christ as the cure. The 1928 service has been praised for “liberating this telling act of penitence from morbid preoccupations with a supposed vitiation of human nature or futile luxury of grief over an irrevocable past.” Edward Lambe Parsons & Bayard Hale Jones, The American Prayer Book: Its Origins and Principles (Scribner, 1937), p. 148; see Edward Clowes Chorley, The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents (“The revision of the Penitential Office illustrates one marked feature of the new Prayer Book—the elimination of exaggerated and therefore, to that extent, unreal expressions of penitence for sin. . . . In the revision the pagan idea of the ‘anger’ of God is entirely eliminated.”).In the 1979 and 2019 books the transformation is different. The opening of the service includes the collect of the day and four readings. These can include the traditional epistle and gospel, but they also include more exuberant passages, such as Psalm 103 and 2 Cor. 5:20–6:10. The former especially is a paen to divine forgiveness and care. To be clear, the 1979/2019 service does emphasize guilt, especially in the “Litany of Penitence.” But that element is placed late in the service; it is after the readings, sermon, ashes, and Psalm 51. The effect of that placement is to make the arc of the service run from Psalm 103 to the Litany of Penitence, from grace to guilt—the exact opposite of the 1662 service.The apparent exception is that near the end of the 1979/2019 service there is an absolution. But the priest says the absolution to the people—gone is the corporate identification of priest and people so emphasized in the BCP 1662, the priest kneeling among the people, all confessing, all absolved by God himself.The 1979 and 2019 books do have a peace at or near the end of the service, but it is boiled down until not much remains. The BCP 1979 rubric says “The Peace is then exchanged.” The BCP 2019 reduces the peace to “The Peace of the Lord be always with you. / And with your spirit.” Yet even that peace is not the conclusion in the 2019 book. A rubric indicates that if there is no Communion, the service is to end with a prayer for God to grant that we would desire him with our heart, and “hate those sins from which you have delivered us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” That final Amen has a different force from the prayer book’s, where the final Amen is an affirmation of divine peace.Finally, note that the 1928, 1979, and 2019 books all omit the concluding verses of Psalm 51. The 1979 and 2019 books also excise the Gloria Patri at the end of the psalm. The effect of these omissions is a lessening of the theme of gratitude.
  46. Marion J. Hatchett, The Making of the First American Book of Common Prayer (Seabury, 1982), p. 32.
  47. Beadle, at p. 23.
  48. John Donne, “For Ash Wednesday—A Hymn to God the Father.”
  49. John Keble, “Commination.”
  50. William Wordsworth, “The Commination Service.”
  51. T.S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday.” “Our peace in His will” is the sixth line from the end. It is the only occurrence of peace in the poem, and the line is given special stress because of its envelopment by the lines “Even among these rocks” and “And even among these rocks.” For the last line of the poem Eliot circles back to the versicles in the Commination service: “And let my cry come unto Thee.”
  52. George Herbert, “Lent.”


Samuel L. Bray is a professor of law at Notre Dame. He is a coauthor, with John F. Hobbins, of Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators (2017); and a coeditor, with Drew Nathaniel Keane, of The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (forthcoming 2021).

'Ashes in a Time of Plague' have 2 comments

  1. January 12, 2021 @ 3:54 am Simon Fisher

    This was a really useful survey and analysis, thank you.

    I think you are slightly sweeping in your comments about the thematic significance of ashing and the liturgical logic of services including it. As in lots of things, the modern practice and way of talking about this obscures some of the original logic. The ancient logic of the service of ashing is, in my view, a lot closer to the logic of the Commination than it is to most modern practice. One could even say that the reformers (as in so much else) were making explicit the logic of the medieval practice, using it didactically, and stripping away what obscured it (including, in this case, even the actual symbol itself). The original logic, it seems to me, was definitely “from guilt to grace” but some of our modern mis-recovery of these practices has obscured this.

    You quote the collect at the ashing in the 1979 and later BCPs which link ashes to the theme of mortality, but in the traditional Catholic rite there are here a sequence of four collects with a very different tenor. Mortality is mentioned once in passing (“loke upon the frailty of our mortal nature …and bless”) but the key theme is *penitence*. The four collects pray for (1) blessed ashes to be a “wholesome medicine for…those who bewail their faults” (2) blessed ashes to increase our humility (3) us to be “filled with the spirit of true penitence” and (4) us to be like the people of Nineveh “repenting in sackcloth & ashes” so as to be like them in “obtaining thy pardon”. There is no explicit denunciation of sins in particular, but sin is the problem to be solved here. And where the modern rite during the ashing generally uses just Gen. 3.19 “Remember, O man, that dust thou are art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (theme of mortality), sometimes with the addition of “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ/the gospel” ( repentance/faith), the traditional rite uses Gen 3.19 (mortality), plus Joel 2.13 (“fasting and mourning”), Joel 3.17 (Spare thy people – as in the Commination), words from Esther 13 (give us time to amend our sins), Ps 79.9 (“deliver us for the glory of thy Name”).

    Here we have effectively a service of repentance, giving significant time and weight to the theme of sin and the serious need for repentance. (Indeed, this rite with its multiple prayers and anthems probably preserves some of the structure and texts from the “godly discipline” of a primitive public penitential service mentioned in the introduction to the Commination.) And we have much more overlap in texts between this and the Commination than between this and the modern practice of ashing.

    It is significant, too, that this is not part of the mass, but (like the Commination) a separate service immediately preceding it. It does not take over the experience of the Communion (as you rightly point out that the modern experience can do) but sets up the congregation to engage with the mass in the right way: as those who have recognised the seriousness of sin and the need for deliverance, who have obeyed God’s commands to engage in acts of repentance, and who now need the forgiveness they have asked for. I suspect also that the restoration of the *sprinkling* of ashes would change the experience from one of being marked visibly with ashes, in a sign that we take away from the service, to one of enacting a sign of penitence that only secondarily visible to others for the rest of the day!

    Finally, in the mass that follows in the traditional rite the movement continues from guilt to grace, particularly in the two prayers that conclude the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The post-communion is strikingly hopeful for those who are used to a modern lets-be-as-glum-as-possible Ash Wednesday (“Protect us, O Lord…that our fast may pleasing to thee, and profitable to the healing of our souls”) and the second (over the people, replacing a blessing) likewise “…that they who have been refreshed by thy sacred gifts, may evermore be strengthened by thy heavenly succour”. The texts are very different here (there is some rather un-Protestant theology in these collects) but the theme is strikingly similar to the confidence in God’s mercy and peace in the close of the Commination.


  2. October 3, 2021 @ 2:44 pm John Smith

    Quote: a theology which constantly pushes back on any notion that grace is conveyed automatically without faith, and which emphasizes decency, edification, minimalism, antiquity, and the authority of the church. Un Quote: As I am not a Scholar I might be mistaken with this thought, Here in Canada two Toronto Male Bishops where Married in St James Cathedral by the Archbishop. To My mind this is against Scripture, so they cannot have the Faith. I would like to mention as a Christian I have no bad feelings against Gay couples but I do not think they should get married in a Church. Thank You for the Article. John


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