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Prayers for contrite hearts

by
16 February 2024

Adrian Leak considers the collects that the Church uses in Lent

Alamy

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer with other editors of the Prayer Book

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer with other editors of the Prayer Book

COMMON WORSHIP suggests the use of the Ash Wednesday collect as a post-communion prayer throughout Lent, until the Saturday after the Fourth Sunday. (During Advent, an equivalent provision is made for the collect for the First Sunday of Advent.)
 

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. . .

This collect in Common Worship is a modernised version of the one set in the Book of Common Prayer for the First Day of Lent. Although Cranmer disapproved strongly of the ceremony of ashing, in composing this prayer he used part of the ancient Latin prayer for the blessing of ashes (Comment, 9 February).

The opening sentence takes us back to the beginning of the Bible, which tells us that God loves all that he has made. The chant-like structure of the first chapter of Genesis, with its rhythmical list of the six days of creation, culminates in the statement that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.” It is a triumphant song of faith in the Creator, and raises our eyes from our merely human destiny to the grander vision of universal joy.

The second sentence, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,” brings us to a sadder place: the human heart. It reminds us that we have rebelled, and the dust from which God created us is the dust to which we shall return (Genesis 3.19). This bleak prospect is relieved only by God himself, whose perfect remission and forgiveness we shall receive through Jesus Christ.

When he composed this collect, Cranmer was familiar with Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms. It is impossible to read the words “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness. . . ” without being reminded of Psalm 51, “Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. . . The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.”

 

FROM her earliest days, the Church has used the season of Lent as an opportunity for self-examination. In former times, Lent was a period during which catechumens were instructed in the faith before their baptism on Easter Eve. It was also the custom for sinners to make public penance — a practice long since discontinued.

To supply this deficiency, Cranmer compiled a special service for Ash Wednesday, “Denouncing God’s Anger and Judgement against Sinners”. It is an alarming catalogue of human depravity, and is strong on judgement but weak on love. This service (“A Commination”) is rarely used today; its presence at the back of the Prayer Book is unknown to most churchgoers, which is just as well.

In modern times, fasting as a sign of penitence has become less prominent in Anglican practice. The Revd John Henry Blunt, a formidably erudite Victorian parson, compiled a list of instructions for parish priests. He advised them not to encourage any form of fasting, because, in those days, the average parishioner’s normal diet in winter was barely adequate for survival. As an exercise in spiritual discipline, foregoing a second helping served no purpose in the case of those who had insufficient on their plate for a first.

Instead, he suggested that those who could afford such luxuries should consider abstaining from, for example, “Theatres, balls, private parties, novel-reading, mere ornamental pursuits, unnecessary delicacies and sumptuous costume” (Directorium Pastorale: The principles and practice of pastoral work in the Church of England, J. H. Blunt, 1866).

 

THE collects provided by Common Worship for the first four Sundays of Lent develop themes of penitence and self-discipline, in preparation for the climax of the Christian year in Holy Week and Easter. To that end, the Liturgical Commission selected and adapted three of them from the BCP. The collect for the First Sunday is based on BCP Lent 1; those for the Second and Fourth Sundays are versions of BCP Easter 3 and Trinity 24. Both these last two derive from the pre-Reformation Sarum Use.

The collect for the Third Sunday of Lent merits close attention:
 

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. . .
 

THE elegance and precision of this prayer meet the highest standards of the traditional collect. It was composed in the 19th century by W. H. Huntingdon, and was included in the Prayer Book of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Many years later, Dean Milner-White published it in his Procession of Passion Prayers (1956), thereby introducing it to the private devotions of many of us on this side of the Atlantic. It was subsequently included in the Alternative Service Book 1980.

Huntingdon’s prayer derives its wording from Cranmer’s exhortation in the Office for the Visitation of the Sick: “For he himself went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain: he entered not into his glory before he was crucified” — words translated from the writings of a contemporary liturgist, Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne. Hermann’s Consultation (1548), which discussed the Catholic Church’s need for doctrinal and practical reform, included a revised form of the pre-Reformation Office for the Visitation of the Sick.

Such is the power of a well-crafted prayer, and the potency of language, to inform and inflame the Church’s devotion.

 

The Revd Adrian Leak is a retired Anglican priest, whose recent publications include The Golden Calves of Jeroboam and After the Order of Melchizedek.

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