Reviving a sombre, ancient tradition

Marking Ash Wednesday old-style

Lent is a time when the Anglican tradition (as well as Orthodox and Catholic traditions) calls people to self-examination, often marked by a period of fasting or abstinence (though not on Sundays!).

Many churches mark the beginning of the 40-day period leading up to Easter with a traditional Ash Wednesday service. This involves applying the physical symbol of ashes (created from the burning of last year’s Palm Sunday crosses) on congregants’ foreheads.

This acts as “a mark of remembering our mortality and the need to so act in this mortal life in a way that will have the best consequences for eternity,” according to Bishop Greg Anderson of the Anglican Diocese of the Northern Territory.

But some churches, such as Christ Church Cathedral in Darwin and Alice Springs Anglican, have recently revived an ancient tradition of a Commination Service rather than a normal Ash Wednesday service.

There is no special Ash Wednesday service in the Book of Common Prayer, but there is a special service for the first day of Lent.

Kristan Slack, Rector of Alice Springs Anglican, explains that there is no special Ash Wednesday service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but there is a special service for the first day of Lent.

“That’s the Commination Service, which makes an announcement of God’s vengeance against sin and it specifically makes a connection not just to mortality but to the fact that God is holy, and he’s bringing his judgment.

“It runs through some of the curses in Deuteronomy to lay out the kind of things God is coming to judge us on, and it just uses a string of scriptural allusions to say that God is coming, and then appeals to people to make things right.”

The service then moves through Psalm 51 – David’s penitent plea for mercy – followed by a prayer for God to act in mercy to his people, even though we don’t deserve it.

“On the whole, it’s probably more sombre and makes explicit I think the things that an Ash Wednesday service doesn’t have to,” says Slack.

“It makes sure that there is both the holy God and the God of mercy in Jesus.”

“I think it marries God’s judgment with God’s mercy beautifully.”

Asked why he chooses to hold the Commination Service, Slack said he felt it was a beautiful and rich Anglican tradition that had been neglected because of a feeling that it’s too serious or archaic to announce God’s judgment.

“But I think it marries God’s judgment with God’s mercy beautifully; the tone moves beautifully through to hope at the end. I think it kicks off Lent in a better way because if we want to deny ourselves, we also need to look to the cross because otherwise, it’s just self-denial without hope.

“Ash Wednesday could be construed as putting the emphasis on a person’s individual repentance and whatever they are doing to expiate the guilt. Whereas a Commination is more explicit about how we are hopeless in our sins before God, and it’s only by God’s mercy that we can be reconciled.

“It ends with the God who saves, rather than ‘now go and try harder,’ which is a horrible burden because you never know if you’ve tried hard enough. I think this is exactly what we need – a reminder that the answer to death is in Jesus, not ‘we all need to be better people.’”