Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Collect - Ash Wednesday

The Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Commentary

The Collect for Ash Wednesday is repeated every day throughout Lent. Dr Peter Toon tells us "it was composed by Archbishop Cranmer, using as his base, the Latin Collect prayed at the benediction of the ashes on Ash Wednesday in the medieval English Church. Before the ashes were laid upon the heads of the members of the congregation the priest said, 'Remember, man, that thou art ashes [dust] and unto ashes [dust] shalt thou return.'

"Here is the old English Latin Collect used with the ashes in an English translation, which seeks to preserve the style of the original:

"'Almighty and everlasting God, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost not impute the sins of men by reason of their penitence; who also dost succour those who labour in necessity; Vouchsafe to bless [+] and sanctify [+] these ashes, which thou has appointed us to bear upon our heads after the manner of the Ninevites, in token of humiliation and holy devotion, and in order to the washing away of our offences; and, by this invocation of thy holy name, grant that all those that shall bear them upon their heads, to implore thereby thy mercy, may obtain from thee both the pardon of all their offences, and also grace so to begin today their holy fasts, that on the day of Resurrection, they may be counted worthy to approach to the holy Paschal feast, and hereafter to receive everlasting glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.'"

The Meditation

It has been said that if all the Gospel were to pass away, except for the Parable of the Prodigal Son, nothing would be lost. The whole Gospel message is contained in that one story.

The same can be said of certain prayers, and the collect for Ash Wednesday is one of them. I struggle to memorise (and retain) some of my favourite collects, but I long since got this one down pat. One reason is simple. Because we pray it every day in Lent, it easily works its way into the memory. And at times when I am without my prayer book and the collect for the day, I can always slot this one in.

The other reason is that, as prayers go, it is right up there in the same league as the story of the wilful son who, realising that he was at his wit's and life's end, threw himself on the mercy of a father who never stopped loving him. A son who is brought to contrition and repentance by the memory of that good father. It's all there.

The God of all mercy is that father. He hates no one that he has made; quite the contrary: He will forgive us and restore us, as our memory of that love, even a distant one, transforms our hearts with tears of compunctions and draws us to throw ourselves at His feet in search of mercy.

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