17 February 2021

Prayer, fasting and renewing
our reasons for hope during
the forty days of Lent

The crucifixion depicted in the East Window in Saint John’s Church, Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 17 February 2021 (Ash Wednesday):

11 a.m., The Eucharist with the Ash Wednesday prayers.


Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-18; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21.

The Crucifixion and the Harrowing of Hell, depicted in a chapel in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Lent begins this morning, Ash Wednesday.

Quite often, we mark Lent with traditional customs such as giving up things, donating to charity, deliberate attitudes of kindness, or taking part in parish Bible studies.

These customs are like New Year’s resolutions: they make us feel guilty when we fall behind, and they make us feel good for as long as we keep them.

But Lent is not about either: about feeling guilty or about feeling better … even if it is a good idea that I should become less self-centred and it is a good for me if, after a few weeks, I feel fitter and healthier.

In Old English, the word ‘Lent’ has the same meaning as ‘Spring.’ It means the days are lengthening – hence ‘Lent’ – and that signs of life are beginning to emerge after the coldness of winter.

As Spring prepares us to look forward to days that are longer and are warmer, so, Lent as a season prepares us to look forward to Easter: to the conquest of death and to new life through the Resurrection of Christ.

In the early Church, Easter was the time to receive new members of the Church in Baptism, the gift of new life in Christ. Baptism was, and is, a second birth, a way of being made one with Christ and one in the great company of believers who are his body, the church on earth and in heaven.

Before Baptism, the early Church had a careful period of preparation for all new members. This was a period of instruction in Christian faith and practice, leading to Baptism on Easter Eve.

New Christians were taught to turn their back on old ways, superstitions and idolatries, and to replace them in Lent with acts such as generosity to the poor, the sick and those in prison. As their Baptism and Easter approached, they practised fasting, almsgiving and prayer, supported and encouraged by members of the Church. It was a communal exercise and experience.

And so began the customs and traditions we associate with the season of Lent. They were seen as an imitation of Christ during his 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness after his baptism by Saint John the Baptist.

At the start of the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to renew our following of Christ: ‘by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’

There is a necessary rigour to Lent. It is meant to offer a time for change to take place.

But fasting also allows us to learn the extraordinary richness of God’s creation: we can appreciate it more if we seek to tame our appetites for a while. Put this alongside prayer and almsgiving and we cannot but help to turn away from self a little more and so have space for God and the claims of God and neighbour on our lives.

The past 12 months have seemed like a long Lent. We did not need to hear this morning’s Gospel to be reminded ‘whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ We have practised self-isolation, abstinence and forgone many worldly pleasures through many phases of the lockdown. But few of us feel good about that, and most of us share anxieties about what the future holds.

But Spring follows winter and holds the promise of summer; Lent holds the hope of Easter and the Resurrection. And the next six weeks of Lent offer us a fresh opportunity to do those things, and to pray in those ways, that make us less self-centred, that make us feel fitter and healthier – spiritually as well as physically – and that renew and refresh our faith, our hope, our love.

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

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

Matthew 6: 1-6 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 6 “Beware of practicing 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.”

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

An Ash Wednesday Liturgy:

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.

Burning Palm Crosses from Palm Sunday to prepare ashes for Ash Wednesday (Photograph: Barbara Comerford)


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

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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