26 February 2020

What about the example given by
‘those hypocrites in the churches’?

Actors’ masks in the Plaka in Athens … how can we stop being play actors or ‘hypocrites’ in Lent? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Ash Wednesday, Wednesday 26 February 2020:

11 am: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton,

Ash Wednesday Eucharist, with optional imposition of ashes.

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-17; II Corinthians 5: 20b to 6: 10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Gospel reading at the beginning of Lent each year, from one Ash Wednesday to the next, is constant, never changes.

And so, the first words from Christ we hear at the beginning of Lent each year: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others … do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets.’

Writing about this reading in the current edition of the Tablet [22 February 2020], Jon M Sweeney wonders how many people as they leave church on Ash Wednesday with a dusting of ash on their foreheads, feel ‘a little smug, proud not to be like those hypocrites …?’

The writer grew up a Roman Catholic, his wife Michal Woll is a rabbi. Naturally, he is concerned too about how people hearing these words might misinterpret the reference ‘hypocrites … in the synagogues.’

He points out, forcibly, that Jesus was a Jew, that Jesus was a rabbi, that, ‘in fact, Jesus still is a Jew. And when he said those words … he was, of course, talking to his fellow Jews.’

To get the real flavour of his repeated admonishment, ‘as the hypocrites in the synagogues,’ he continues, we need to translate this, ‘as the hypocrites do in the churches.’

He advises, ‘If we want to imagine ourselves, today, standing in front of Jesus, as he looks us in the eye and speaks directly to us, then the “hypocrites” he speaks of … could be us.’

To follow Christ more closely during Lent, Jon Sweeney suggests, we should think of him as teaching us to be good 21st century Christians rather than bad 1st century Jews.

He points out that the author of Saint Matthew’s Gospel was Jewish, and to understand the jarring phrase ‘in the synagogues’ we have to grasp the infighting between different Jewish groups that was going on when this Gospel was written.

And, he says, ‘we should try to read Scripture as it applies to our own life, not the lives of others … Scripture should never be read as a way to condemn someone else’ … certainly not as a cloak for anti-Semitism.

He knows some parishes where the priest has quietly substituted the word ‘churches’ for ‘synagogues’ in today’s reading to avoid misunderstandings.

The word hypocrite is from a Greek word ὑποκριτής (hypokritēs), describing an actor who interpreted and performed in public a dramatic text.

This was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure in Athens in the 4th century BC. The orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before going into politics, as a hypocrite whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him untrustworthy as a politician. So, a hypocrite came to mean someone who is ‘play-acting,’ assuming a false persona.

How might I put aside my false persona this Lent, and turn away from being a hypocrite?

Too often, when it comes to doing something for Lent, we think in terms of negatives, giving up something, rather than positives, doing something good.

There is a popular posting on social media in recent days in which Pope Francis asks ‘Do you want to fast for Lent?’

And his reply is:

● Fast from hurting words and say kind words
● Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude
● Fast from anger and be filled with patience
● Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope
● Fast from worries and have trust in God
● Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity
● Fast from pressures and be prayerful
● Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy
● Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others
● Fast from grudges and be reconciled
● Fast from words and be silent so you can listen

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A window ledge in the chapel in Dr Miley’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21:

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

Burning Palm Crosses from last year to make ashes for Ash Wednesday this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Liturgical Colour: Violet (Purple).

The Gathering:

The traditional Ash Wednesday invitation or exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer begins:

‘Brothers and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. It became the custom of the Church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

‘At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the Church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin. In course of time the Church came to recognize that, by a careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.

‘I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’

Silence may be kept.

Then the priest says:

Let us pray for grace to keep Lent faithfully.

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 may be truly sorry for our sins
and obtain from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer suggests that at the Confession and the Commandments may be read (and should be read during Advent and Lent), but neither the Beatitudes nor the Summary of the Law is used at the Ash Wednesday service. The Book of Common Prayer suggests ‘there should be two readers if possible, one reading the Old Testament statement and the second the New Testament interpretation’:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like it.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself
On these two commandments depend all the law
and the prophets. (Matthew 22: 37-39)

Lord, have mercy on us,
and write these your laws in our hearts.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Book of Common Prayer (pp 340-341) also provides this form of Confession and Absolution:

After The Litany Two (pp 175-178), silence is kept for a time, after which is said:

Make our hearts clean, O God,
and renew a right spirit within us.

Father eternal, giver of light and grace,
we have sinned against you and against our neighbour,
in what we have thought, in what we have said and done,
through ignorance, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We have wounded your love, and marred your image in us.
We are sorry and ashamed, and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us,
forgive us all that is past;
and lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light. Amen.

This prayer is said:

God our Father,
the strength of all who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers;
and because, in our weakness,
we can do nothing good without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in keeping your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


The priest pronounces the Absolution:

Almighty God,
who forgives all who truly repent,
have mercy upon you,
pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness
and keep you in life eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The canticle Gloria in Excelsis may be omitted in Advent and Lent and on weekdays that are not holy days. Other versions of this canticle may be used, or when appropriate another suitable hymn of praise.

The invitation to Communion:

The invitation to Communion begins:

Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son,
That he may live in us and we in him;
and that we, with the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your kingdom. Amen.

This prayer may be used in place of the Prayer of Humble Access (see p 342). As such it comes before the Peace and not as part of the Invitation to Communion (the Church of England usage).

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)


Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
you have given your only Son to be for us
both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life:
Give us grace
that we may always most thankfully receive
these his inestimable gifts,
and also daily endeavour ourselves
to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him;
and the blessing of God Almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be with you, and remain with you always. Amen.


535: Judge eternal, throned in splendour.
586: Just as I am, thine own to be.

The Crucifix on the Nave Altar in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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