You may be interested to know the first English prayer book of 1549 calls tonight’s rite “The First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday.” The 1552 revision changed the name to “A Commination against Sinners, with Certain Prayers to be Used Divers Times in the Year.” (A commination is the reciting of divine threats of vengeance on sinners. As a word it has fallen so far out of use that it is unknown to spell check.) Not to be outdone, the 1662 English prayer book calls this service “A Commination, or Denouncing of God’s Anger and Judgment against Sinners, with Certain Prayers to be Used on the First Day of Lent, and at Other Times, as the Ordinary shall Appoint.”
The Commination was drawn primarily from the 27th Chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy:
Cursed is the man that maketh any carved or molten image, an abomination to the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place to worship it.
Cursed is he that curseth his father and mother.
Cursed is he that removeth away the mark of his neighbour’s land.
Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way.
Cursed is he that letteth in judgment the right of the stranger, of them that be fatherless, and of widows.
Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly.
Cursed is he that lieth with his neighbour’s wife.
Cursed is he that taketh reward to slay the soul of innocent blood.
Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, and taketh man for his defense, and in his heart goeth from the Lord.
Cursed are the unmerciful, the fornicators, and adulterers, and the covetous persons, the worshipers of images, slanderers, drunkards, and extortioners.
Well, now you have been rightly and duly comminated and don’t forget it. Still, there is something helpful about rehearsing those things that are definitely wrong. And the old liturgy did more than lecture people on their sins, it spelled out (in exacting Old-English detail) what one must do to be restored to God’s favor.
The themes of penitence and mortality are intertwined in our Ash Wednesday liturgies and lessons. We are human and we fail, sometimes spectacularly, at what it means to be created in God’s image. In Lent we reach out to God in an attempt to become again who God created us to be. We seek healing of what is broken in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world. In tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us this is to be a very personal and private act. Our piety is intended for transformation, not attention.
And speaking of transformation, what are you giving up for Lent? Some of us will give up something personally challenging, say alcohol, while others will give up something not so taxing, like kissing hippos. The choice is yours, but one thing I know from experience, the more demanding the particular Lenten rigors I embrace, the longer it takes to get to Easter.
Here is another Lenten question, just as important as the other, but not asked nearly as often: What are you taking on for Lent? The call to almsgiving, reading scripture, and prayer during Lent suggests what we add is just as important as that from which we choose to abstain.
William Arthur Ward, who passed away in 1994, is one of America’s most quoted inspirational writers. He contends Lent should be a season of feasting as well as a season of fasting. He elaborated on this in his famous Lenten Prayer:
Lent is a season to:
Fast from judging others;
feast on Christ living in them.
Fast from emphasis on differences;
feast on the unity of all life.
Fast from apparent darkness;
feast on the reality of light.
Fast from thoughts of illness;
feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute;
feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent;
feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger;
feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism;
feast on optimism.
Fast from worry;
feast on appreciation.
Fast from complaining;
feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives;
feast on affirmatives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures;
feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility;
feast on non-resistance.
Fast from bitterness;
feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern;
feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety;
feast on eternal hope through Jesus.
Fast from discouragement;
feast on hope.
Fast from lethargy;
feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicions;
feast on truth.
Fast from idle gossip;
feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from thoughts of weakness;
feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from problems that overwhelm;
feast on prayer that undergirds.
Fast from everything that separates us from the Lord;
feast on everything that draws us to the Lord.
Unlike the Commination, these are not divine threats of vengeance on sinners. Rather, they speak to the brokenness we experience when we fail to live fully into the image of God in us. And the feasts direct us to a more whole and holy way of living. They hint at and give hope for how dying to self can give way to a new Easter life.
So here is something you may want to do. Take this prayer home with you and meditate on it for some time. What one or two or perhaps three fasts and feasts from the prayer you might want to take on for Lent? If you are really brave, you can ask your spouse or a close friend what they think you should fast and feast on. When was the last time you asked for this kind of honest feedback?