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Ash Wednesday and Lent

excerpt from

COMMON PRAYER: A Commentary on the Prayer Book Lectionary

Volume 2: Septuagesima to Easter Eve

St. Peter Publications Inc. Charlottetown, PEI, Canada

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


No one disputes that Lent is a very ancient season of the church year.  Although its length and manner of observance have varied considerably at different times and places, nevertheless it has always been kept as a period of solemn preparation for the great feast of Easter and is so appointed in the Prayer Book (Canadian BCP 1962, p. xiii).

The various lessons and psalms appointed for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, would seem to have been chosen to provide an exceedingly rich introduction to the purpose and means of our solemn Lenten preparation for the joyful resurrection of our Lord.  A brief statement of its purpose and means may be found in the exhortation read at the Penitential Service (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 611ff).  There we find that the object of all our Lenten disciplines is a renewal of our repentance and faith.  The means of this renewal are said to be self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on Holy Scripture.

Repentance lies at the heart of the Christian life.  Without it, holiness is impossible.  John the Baptist and our Lord, St. Peter and St. Paul, all preached repentance as the fundamental condition for entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38, 17:30).

Repentance signifies a turning away from sin to God.  It requires a new or renewed understanding of our sins so that we may hate them, and a fresh perception of God's love and mercy, especially as displayed in Jesus Christ - "Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom 2:4).

The acts of repentance are well described in the second exhortation appended to the Holy Eucharist (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 90ff).  The first act is an examination of one's thoughts, words, and deeds by some divine standard such as the Ten Commandments or Beatitudes.  This should lead to a godly sorrow for our sins (II Cor 7:10), prompted by the love of our suffering God.  The second act is a full and detailed confession to God, in the person of one of his priests if necessary.  The final act is the effort to amend our lives and to repair the damages we have done through our sins.  

Once we have turned away from sin, the mind rises naturally to God, first confessing its sins, but then in thanksgiving, adoring love and charitable petition.  These are the parts of prayer which we should practice according to some rule of life (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 555), revised appropriately each Lent.

A very great aid to prayer is the practice of fasting and self-denial, for fasting is one of the chief means of making the body and its desires subject to spiritual ends.  Strictly speaking, fasting means totally doing without food and drink for a set period of time.  More usually, it is taken to mean doing without some kinds of food and drink, and without large quantities, for a period of time.  Even in this latter case, a real denial of our natural inclinations and appetites is implied.  It is also very fitting that our acts of self-denial should result in alms-giving, whether as actual charitable giving or as some other deliberate work of mercy.

With the body thus held in check by self-denial and the mind raised to God in repentance and prayer, we are now ready to hear, read and meditate on the Holy Scriptures.  The holy mysteries of God are accessible only to those in whom God abides (compare John 16:7, 13; I John 4:13).  Yet the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12), which is never free of wickedness (Jer 17:9; I John 1:8).  Thus, the meditation of Scripture always calls us back to the need for repentance.

The lessons from Holy Scripture appointed for Lent in the Prayer Book are devoted to the task of persuading us to repent and believe.  The eucharistic readings certainly are very clearly designed to this, for at the same time that they compel us to consider the principal enemies of the soul, they also encourage us to seek the virtues which will live in our hearts and discourage all evil (Luke 11:24-26).

Today, therefore, let us undertake the disciplines of Lent.  Let us ask Christ's aid in uprooting vice and cultivating those virtues we have so recently contemplated.