Celebrating the Penitential: Music for Ash Wednesday

On Wednesday, Anglicans and other liturgical Christians will begin their second Lent during the interminable season of Covidtide. If ever there were a time to turn our focus away from things temporal to things eternal, now would be it.

Even in normal times, picking a hymn for Ash Wednesday poses some unique problems. Many churches will have no music at all — either because a choir is not available midweek, is not available this year, or because (as with Good Friday) music is contrary to the penitential goals of the service.[1] Others will be limited (by resources or intent) to a capella music, which dramatically limits the choices for congregational singing.

But beyond the nature of the music, there is a second potential dilemma of the meaning of the day. Ash Wednesday is not really like any other major holy day. It doesn’t mark an event like Annunciation, Incarnation, Epiphany, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, or Pentecost. Nor does it mark a particular person (John the Baptist, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc.) or persons (the Trinity, Philip & James, All Saints).

Instead, on Wednesday we observe the beginning of a liturgical season. So when picking music for Ash Wednesday, we also must decide the question: what message are the hymns trying to reinforce?

Ash Wednesday Liturgies

Even before deciding on the message, it’s necessary to decide when that message will be heard from among the various options for the liturgical observance of Ash Wednesday. Fortunately, at most churches this will be obvious.

Daily Office. While (as on any day) there are readings for Morning and Evening Prayer, even a large American church will rarely use these for a midweek sung service.

Holy Communion. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer features the same lessons as in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, originally selected by Thomas Cranmer from the corresponding usage in both the Sarum (Salisbury) and Roman Missals of his day: Joel 2:12-17 and Matthew 6:16-21.[2] The 1979 BCP prefaces both Joel (adding 2:1-2) and Matthew (with 6:1-6) while using 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 for the intervening lesson. The 1979 lessons are retained by both the Revised Common Lectionary and the ACNA’s 2019 BCP.

Penitential Office of Ash Wednesday. As Henry Blunt explained in 1867, the 1549 service for “The First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash-Wednesday … is an adaptation of an ancient[3] service which was said between Prime and Mass on Ash-Wednesday.” However, for the next three English books through 1662, it became a service of “Commination.” As Blunt continues:

The original title, it will be observed, agrees with the ancient one; and the alteration was made at the suggestion of Martin Bucer, whose Judaizing tendencies led him to wish for a more frequent use of the Commination, and a general revival of open penance, the infliction of which seems to have possessed great charms for Puritan minds.[4]

Missing from the 1789 American book, the 1892 BCP and 1928 BCP include a shorter service called “A Penitential Office of Ash Wednesday” which opens with Psalm 51. It is intended to be used after the Litany, at Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, or as a brief stand-alone service. The history of this first American rite is summarized by Massey Shepherd:

It consists of the latter portion of ‘A Commination’ service in the English Book since 1549, and this in turn is based upon the penitential service that preceded the Blessing of Ashes in the Sarum rite for Ash Wednesday. …

[In a] comparison of the Sarum and the Prayer Book offices … the principal difference between the medieval and the Prayer Book Offices is the absence in the latter of an Absolution. But the Prayer Book compilers considered that this deficiency would be taken care of by the Absolution in the Holy Communion which they intended should follow immediately after the Penitential Office. The old ceremony of blessing and distributing ashes was eliminated, since the Reformers had a strong distaste for blessings of material objects. They also felt that such a ceremony contradicted the plain teaching of the Gospel appointed for Ash Wednesday.[5]

However, while today’s 1928 prayer book churches will continue the medieval practice of a penitential service before the Eucharist, most such “High” (often “Anglo-Catholic”) churches will ignore the prohibition of Papish practices by the proto-Puritans.

Ash Wednesday. The 1979 prayer book offers a contemporary language service with the Holy Communion lessons for the date, a sermon, the (optional) imposition of ashes, Psalm 51, a minimalist confession, and a litany that emphasizes more contemporary definitions of sin. It can be used stand-alone or (as with medieval practice) as a preface to the remainder of the Communion service. The 2019 ACNA prayer book follows a similar structure but with a longer confession and a more traditional definition of sin.[6]

1. Repentance: Joel’s Greatest Hit

Even more than for most people, my favorite part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy are the two most famous verses (2:12-13) written by the minor prophet Joel:

Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:

And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

Alas, as with the rest of the Old Testament, it’s nearly impossible to find a decent hymn to match. The official Scriptural cross-reference[7] to Hymnal 1982 — there is no exact equivalent for The Hymnal (1940) or Magnify the Lord[8] (2019) — lists exactly one hymn for all of Joel: “Christ is the world’s true Light” for Joel 3:10, scheduled at the end of the season of Pentecost.

However, the liturgical cross-reference[9] for Hymnal 1982 lists three texts for the Ash Wednesday Joel 2 reading; the first two are consistently classified as Lenten hymns:

  • “Kind Maker of the world, O hear” (H82: 144)
  • “Lord Jesus, Sun of Righteousness” (H82: 152; H40: 56; MTL: 96)
  • “Before thy throne, O God, we kneel” (H82: 574; H40: 499; MTL: 599)

Meanwhile, the liturgical cross-reference in Magnify the Lord identifies four texts for Joel 2 from its “Penitence” section:

  • “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,” either to Rest (MTL: 603; H40: 435; H82: 652) or Repton (MTL: 602; H82: 653)
  • “Drop, drop, slow tears” (MTL: 610; H40: 69)
  • “O God of earth and altar” (MTL: 611)
  • “Almighty Lord, before thy throne” (MTL: 612)

Still, none of these echo the theme of “rend your hearts and not your garments,” an image that remains with me throughout the year. Perhaps someday I’ll write a hymn for this text, although I suspect it will be a major challenge to find a minor tune to match the tone.

2. A Penitential Season

My personal experience of Ash Wednesday has been only since my adult return to the Church three decades ago. While I rarely celebrate Shrove Tuesday, I try to mark Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Lenten penitential season. This turns out to be a theologically plausible choice.

The season of Lent dates to the 4th century if not earlier. In 331, St. Athanasius, Bp. of Alexandria, wrote a letter to his congregations encouraging them to keep a Lenten fast of 40 days.[10] The decision to omit Sundays from Lent and thus extend Lent to the previous Wednesday in the Western[11] church dates to the mid-6th century.

Marion Hatchett notes that even before this latter extension, Lent was used by the early church for “penitential discipline … when those whose notorious sins had caused scandal were excommunicated.”[12] After observing the Lenten period of penitence, these notorious sinners were restored to the church, typically at the Easter vigil. As Hatchett helpfully notes, the Ash Wednesday (later Commination) service of the English BCP was to support the “aim of English reformers … to restore public penance as a means of discipline.”[13]

While Scripture does not testify to the practices of the 4th or 5th-century church, the choice of forty days is an obvious reference to Jesus fasting in the wilderness, as recounted by the synoptic gospels (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4). This analogy is beautifully captured by the first and last verses of Hymn 55 in The Hymnal (1940), adapted from the 1856 text by English priest George H. Smyttan;

Forty days and forty nights

Thou wast fasting in the wild;

Forty days and forty nights

Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear,

Ever constant by Thy side;

That with Thee we may appear

At the eternal Easter-tide.

The same verses[14] are found in Hymnal 1982 (#150) and Magnify the Lord (#99).

This was one of the three hymns on the forty-day theme I found in a 2016 compilation of popular Lenten hymns.[15] This month, I looked at these three hymnals, two Lutheran hymnals, and Hymnary.org — and found only these same three hymns. The others were:

  • “The glory of these forty days,” attributed to Gregory the Great (H40: 61; H82: 143; MTL: 95)
  • “Lord, who throughout these forty days,” the most popular hymn of Claudia F. Hernaman, the daughter and wife of Anglican priests (H40: 59: H82: 142; MTL: 98)

3. Foreshadowing the Lenten Lectionary

The Sunday readings in Lent correspond to Jesus’ inexorable journey to the cross — beginning when he “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) — that ended with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem marked by Palm Sunday. Arguably, Wednesday’s music could thus foreshadow these lessons and the themes they discuss.

However, since the hymns on the next five Sundays will be tied to these themes, this is not a theme I would personally choose for Ash Wednesday unless there was a specific reason to support the sermon that highlights this aspect of the liturgical year.

4. Looking Forward to Holy Week

At many churches, the liturgical role of Ash Wednesday is quite clear: as the opening bookend of the Lenten season. As in a Hollywood movie, at the beginning of the season we know how the journey to Jerusalem will end: at the cross on Good Friday.

Some churches will thus want to use hymns that foreshadow Holy Week. Alas, most of the Holy Week hymns have vivid imagery tied to the week’s events, particularly Palm Sunday (aka “Passiontide”) or Good Friday: as such, it makes it difficult to use these hymns at other times of the year.

However, two Holy Week hymns offer a more general perspective. The first is “Drop, drop slow tears,” a 17th-century text by Phineas Fletcher, Puritan poet and minister. Although dropped from Hymnal 1982, the three verses are listed as a Passiontide hymn in The English Hymnal (98) and Hymnal 1940 (69) and an appropriately “Penitential” hymn in Magnify the Lord (610):

Drop, drop, slow tears,

And bathe those beauteous feet,

Which brought from heav’n

The news and Prince of Peace.


Cease not, wet eyes,

His mercies to entreat;

To cry for vengeance

Sin doth never cease.


In your deep floods

Drown all my faults and fears;

Nor let his eye

See sin, but through my tears.

The other promising hymn is “Ah, holy Jesus” (H40: 71, H82: 158, MTL: 121), the translation of a 1630 text by Lutheran pastor Johan Heermann, with a tune written for it by Lutheran pastor Johann Crüger, which begins:

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,

That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?

By foes derided, by thine own rejected,

O most afflicted.

A more general hymn for Ash Wednesday is given by the Hymnal 1940 lectionary cross-reference. It recommends “O God, be merciful to me” aka “When broken heart” (H40: 60; MTL: 97), which threads general themes of penitence through the cross to our redemption. As it concludes:

And when, redeemed from sin and hell,

With all the ransomed throng I dwell,

My raptured song shall ever be,

God has been merciful to me.

5 Celebrating our Faith in Jesus

A few sources seem to recommend general hymns of faith that seem more relevant to Easter or the rest of the year. Personally, this feels like cheating, jumping ahead 46 days over the entire penitential season: the Anglican liturgical calendar provides at least 40 weeks of festal (or ordinary) season, and there’s plenty of chances to use these hymns after Lent is over.

Perhaps the best argument for this approach would be to pick a hymn tied to the Matthew 6 gospel reading (“when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites…”). This reading is not mentioned in either the Scriptural or Liturgical indices to Hymnal 1982.

Magnify the Lord recommends four texts that tangentially support this gospel. The best known is the penitential funeral hymn “Rock of Ages,” with its choice of two tunes: Toplady (H40: 471 2nd; H82: 685; MTL: 609) or Petra (H40: 471 1st; MTL: 608). Another good choice from this list is “My faith looks up to thee” (H40: 449; H82: 691; MTL: 414).


As on any day, the choice of a hymn depends on one’s hymnal or other local definition of the canon of what is available to be sung. Unlike for other major holy days — not just Easter but Good Friday or Pentecost — that canon will likely be slim, with a notable paucity of Christian hymns intended specifically for Ash Wednesday.

In the end, the final decision may just continue the normal practice of picking hymns to match the lessons or sermon theme. However, more fundamentally for Ash Wednesday, it boils down to two issues. First, to what part of Lent do you want to direct the congregation’s attention? And this year — or in general — how far do you want to turn the knob on the penitential scale?


  1. Book of Common Prayer 1979 requires entrance in silence for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, while Book of Common Prayer 2019 makes it optional for the former and required for the latter.
  2. Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 124. Shepherd adds that the pre-reformation liturgies also included Joel 2:18-19, “giving a hopeful ending to the selection.”
  3. Blunt, like many Victorian Anglicans, here stretches “ancient” beyond its customary end point in the 5th or 6th century to further legitimate medieval church practices. Another example is Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), where — beyond the hymns of St. Fortunatus — the “ancient” hymns are largely medieval Greek and Latin hymns translated by J.M. Neale and others.
  4. Henry Blunt, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 2nd ed. (London: Rivingtons, 1867), pp. 307-308, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=pr5CAAAAYAAJ
  5. Shepherd, p. 60.
  6. Rather a traditional confession or litany, the Ash Wednesday service of the draft “Traditional Language Edition” of the ACNA prayer book includes the 2019 formulation except with thees and thous.
  7. Marion J. Hatchett, A Scriptural Index to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1988), p. 80. In this publication, 214 pages are devoted to the New Testament, 41 to the Psalms, 43 to the rest of the OT and 3 to the Apocrypha.
  8. See Joel W. West, “Hymnal Choices for North American Anglicans,” North American Anglican, June 15, 2020, URL: http://northamanglican.online/hymnal-choices-for-north-american-anglicans/
  9. Marion J. Hatchett, Hymnal Studies Five: A Liturgical Index to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1986), pp. 185-186.
  10. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers II, Vol. 4 (Oxford: Parker & Co., 1892), URL: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxv.iii.iii.iii.html
  11. Today, the Orthodox churches count Sundays as part of Great Lent, but do not count Holy Week.
  12. Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 218.
  13. Hatchett, Commentary, p. 219.
  14. In The English Hymnal (1906), an extra verse is inserted after the first.
  15. J. West, “Favorite Lenten Hymns,” Anglican Music weblog, March 20, 2016, URL: http://anglicanmusic.blogspot.com/2016/03/favorite-lenten-hymns.html


Joel W. West

Joel is director of Mission Communities for the Diocese of the Holy Trinity of the Anglican Catholic Church, and also serves on the Continuing Forward task force for mission & evangelism of the G-4 Continuing Anglican jurisdictions. A researcher on Anglican and ecumenical hymn singing and the author of the Anglican Music weblog, he holds an M.A. in Religion from Cranmer Theological House.

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