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Ash Wednesday

by the Rev. Melville Scott, D.D.

Vicar of Castlechurch, Stafford.

From The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles and Gospels.

A Devotional Exposition of the Continuous Teaching of

the Church throughout the Year, S.P.C.K. London, 1902.
(with gratitude to, and the permission of, The Anglican Expositor, Courtenay, BC
who recently republished this work)



Upon this day the Church teaches the duty and nature of fasting, as the expression of earnest penitence and the accompaniment of special prayer.  Few realize the extent of the disciplinary provisions of the Church as shown not only in the forty days of Lent, but also in the provision of Ember weeks, the three Rogations days, the sixteen vigils, and the weekly fast on every Friday in the year.  Equally remarkable is the strenuous care with which she guards these special seasons from misuse.  We have already noted the three Sundays of Lenten preparation.  On Ash Wednesday the whole teaching of the day is intended to ensure the spiritual use of abstinence as an aid to the devotional life, and as a check upon worldliness and unspirituality, and against its misuse as fostering pride.

FOR THE EPISTLE — Joel 2:12-17 — Fasting under the Old Testament

A. Its Inward Reality.

It was to be the accompaniment of the true conversion of a heart turned to God; of a penitence which mourns and weeps for sin; of a contrition which rends the heart and not the garments; of an entire trust in the mercy of God, Who is slow to anger and of great kindness.

B. Its Outward Expression.

All classes and ages are to unite in this true and heartfelt repentance. The call is to be public; there is to be a solemn assembly: the whole people are to be gathered. The elders are not too old, nor the children too young. None are to consider themselves too deeply engaged with the pleasures or the duties of life to attend. The priests are to plead on behalf of the people, standing as the people’s representatives “between the porch and the altar.”

They are to plead the covenant relation of the nation as God’s people and inheritance. We are not to turn to God to make Him ours, but because we are His. God is so graciously concerned in us that we can plead that our loss will be His reproach, and our restoration His glory. Our covenant position conferred in baptism is our plea for grace, and our regeneration our encouragement to “arise and go” to our Heavenly Father, though unworthy to be called His children.

Our position given by grace is a pledge that sufficient grace will be given us to walk worthily of it, and that our Father will give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him.

It is much to be noticed that the Church year does not begin with Ash Wednesday, but that Christmas and Epiphany precede the penitence of Lent. Thus the Church of both Testaments argues from covenant to conversion, and not, as is so often done, from conversion to covenant.

THE GOSPEL — S. Matthew 6:16-21 — Fasting under
the New Testament

Still greater stress is laid by our Saviour upon inward reality. He warns us against mingling any shallow vanities, self-applause, or imagined meritoriousness with our spiritual efforts, our approaches to God, our works done for Him.

Christ does not forbid public fasting any more than public prayers, so that all be done for His sake and to Him alone. The Gospel may be considered as teaching the rewards of self-discipline.

A. The Reward of Men.

This is not to be sought. We may not indulge in thoughts of self in our charities, prayers, or fastings. The less we think of that very doubtful character the better, and if we never thought of him except to mend him we should not go far wrong. We are to restrain and silence him all we can, and are to do this in fear:—

(1)Of a most humiliating word.
The word hypocrite is the portion of those who serve self while appearing to be serving God. They are play-actors at religion, representing thoughts they do not think, and uttering words and prayers they do not feel. They worship not God, but self.

(2) Of an alarming truth.
Such “have received their reward”—i.e., they shall have no other. The transient delight of their own self-approval and the approval of others is all the reward they shall ever know. Self has been their God—self must be their rewarder.

B. The Reward of God.

We are to be perfectly simple and natural in our religious life, and to make no parade of religious observance. If we fast, the world is to know very little about it, and we are to be as well dressed, as cheerful, and as self-forgetting as possible. We are not to be ashamed of God’s service, nor to shrink from confessing Christ before men, for this passage forbids not duty, but only all motives lower than duty.

Such forgetfulness of self shall not miss its reward. As the self-remembering shall be forgotten, so the self-forgetting shall be remembered. Truly astonished shall such be in the day of God’s remembrance (cf. S. Matt. 25:37-39).

C. The Comparison of the Two Rewards.

Earthly rewards are corruptible and precarious, but those of God are incorruptible and secure. Our hearts will follow our labours. If we have laboured for earthly treasure our hearts will be set on earth; if for heavenly, they will rise heavenwards. The pursuit of heavenly duties is the way to get a heavenly mind.

THE COLLECT — The Lenten Prayer

This Collect, though suitable to the day as teaching the true motive of abstinence, belongs to the whole Lenten season, during which it is to be repeated daily, and shews how we are to regard Lent as the passage from sin to penitence and pardon.

A. The Motives of Penitence.

These are found in the character of God—in His love in Creation which has not been removed by the Fall, in His special promises through Christ to those who truly repent. It is very noticeable that Epiphany must ever come before Lent, for sin is only realized by comparison, and only when we have seen the manifestation of holiness in Christ can we repent in the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday.

B. The Source of Penitence.

This also is from God. A contrite heart is not natural to us, but must be created and fully formed in us before we can lament our actual sins or deplore the wretchedness of our condition in any sense worthily or adequately.

C. The Blessings of Penitence.

These are the remission of the sins which we lament, and the forgiveness of our inward condition of sinfulness. These benefits are only to be obtained from God, Who is the God of all mercy. Our repentance cannot pardon us, but God alone, yet He can only pardon repentance. His pardon is not, however, proportioned to our repentance, for it is perfect, while our repentance can, at best, only be worthy.