‘…worthily lamenting our sins…’ – The Collect for Ash Wednesday

If you worship  within the traditions of Prayer-Book Anglicanism, you will now have prayed the Collect for Ash Wednesday at least twice (Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday in Lent), or, if you have joined us here at the Witness Cloud praying the Daily Office, one to four times per day since Ash Wednesday. And you will pray it again for the rest of Lent until Easter arrives:

Not everyone prays this Collect anymore. The church at which I worshipped on Ash Wednesday did not; we prayed as God’s ‘faithful people’ for Him to give us the spirit of penitence. I am too tired by now to be annoyed by such developments, although this was preferable to Ash Wednesday at a different local church at which we prayed no prayers of confession one year. Although I am not annoyed, per se, I am dismayed.

My dismay arises not from being a ‘traditionalist’ but because I see the rich value of this beautiful prayer, crafted by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and perceived as pastorally and prayerfully useful for over 400 years until newer prayers started to supplant it. Thankfully, versions of this prayer do exist in Common Worship and Canada’s Book of Alternative Services (BAS), although the BAS replaces ‘wretchedness’ with ‘brokenness’.

So here is where I actually begin —

wretchedness

The Collect for Ash Wednesday is one of the collects that, properly speaking, was composed by Cranmer. Many of the BCP collects are translations from mediaeval collects, many of them are adaptations from mediaeval collects more suited to Reformational worship. A few of them are originals. The first lines of this collect are a translation from the mediaeval Sarum collect for the Benediction of the Ashes, up to ‘… all them that are penitent.’ The rest is Cranmer’s; the Latin collect was about fasting, Cranmer’s, on the other hand, continues the theme of penitence.

One could do a line-by-line commentary on this collect, fleshing out what it says with biblical and theological references, drawing in the richness of Patristic, mediaeval, and early modern Christian teaching on repentance, on metanoia, on that changing of course to that journey that will land us safely in the harbour of God’s city.

I shall not. After realising that we need God’s help (that is, grace) even to repent, and stating that we lament our sins, we also say

acknowledging our wretchedness

Now, you may feel that wretchedness and the BAS brokenness hit the same note. And you may be right. They do not hit the same note for me, though. It seems we are losing a sense of our wretchedness in current Christian discourse, as highlighted in this post ‘Where Have All the Wretches Gone?‘ that laments the removal of the word from hymns both old and new.

Yet imagine ‘Amazing Grace’ without ‘that saved a wretch like me.’ It is our wretchedness that makes God’s grace so ‘sweet’. Here are some options for wretch from the Oxford English Dictionary:

One who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow, misfortune, or poverty; a miserable, unhappy, or unfortunate person; a poor or hapless being. (definition 2a)
A vile, sorry, or despicable person; one of opprobrious or reprehensible character; a mean or contemptible creature. Also without article. (definition 3a)

As an adjective, it can mean:

Of persons: Poor; miserable; deeply afflicted (Definition 1 as adj)

This makes it an equivalent of wretched:

Of persons, etc.: Living in a state of misery, poverty, or degradation; sunk in distress or dejection; very miserable or unhappy (Definition 1a)

Cranmer likely did not have Definition 1a of wretch in mind, but I like it nonetheless:

One driven out of or away from his native country; a banished person; an exile.

Human beings, because of our sinful ways, because of death, because of our shared nature that extends to Adam, are wretched. We are certainly broken as well. But brokenness does not plumb the depths of English vocabulary as we consider the human condition in light of the ruin caused, to cite the 1662 BCP’s Baptism Service, by the devil, the world, the flesh.

Brokenness might mean psychological wounds. It might mean disease. It might mean mental illness. It might mean strained relationships. It might mean things over which we have no control.

Wretchedness goes deeper and speaks of the state of the human person without God’s grace.

This probably all sounds grim and like the sort of reason people don’t go to church or use the Prayer Book anymore. Nonetheless, what’s so amazing about grace if I don’t really need it?

We are creatures that God loves, made in His image. The Trinitarian supercelestial love decided, for no reason other than to have somebody to love, to make us. And to make us in His own image. God, superabundant, overflowing love, hates nothing that He has made.

We, as St Athanasius reminds us in On the Incarnation, have gone away from our loving God and are heading towards destruction. God is all being, all truth, all light. If we move towards Him, we are moving towards being, truth, light. If we move away, we are moving towards non-existence, falsehood, darkness. That is to say, death. A spiritual and physical death.

So Christ came into the world, becoming incarnate as a real man, living, dying, rising, ascending. ‘Trampling down death by death’ as an Orthodox Apolytikion of the Resurrection puts it, he has restored us to life, enabling us to live as part of the divine life.

Think on that.

Then consider your own sins, the misbehaviours, false attitudes, ungracious deeds, judgementalism, grumblings, lies, lusts, twisted desires that lurk in your own heart. Lamentable, yes. Wretched, indeed.

By acknowledging our wretchedness, we are able to pinpoint the disease.

Then we turn to Christ in repentance. He, ‘the God of all mercy’ will give us the cure, ‘perfect remission and forgiveness.’

This is Gospel. This is Good News.

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