Lent in 1662: The Commination

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, an edition of said book that was to endure for centuries with little or no modification, and from which all of today’s Anglican Prayer Books, from Edinburgh to Toronto, from New York to Singapore, from Nairobi to Wellington are descended.

This book is descended from the work of Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, itself a reformed, Anglicised version of the mediaeval Latin Use of Sarum (from which I have my translations of the marriage ceremony and a version of Vespers available on this site).

1662 includes, for Ash Wednesday, ‘A Commination‘ (literally, ‘threatening of vengeance’), descended from 1549’s service for the First Day of Lent. This service breathes fire; those with a knee-jerk reaction to things Reformed will take one look at its preface and declare, ‘This is why I’m not Reformed!’

Here is the fiery text of 1662:

BRETHREN, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.
Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture; and that ye should answer to every Sentence, Amen: To the intent that, being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners, ye may the rather be moved to earnest and true repentance; and may walk more warily in these dangerous days; fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths the curse of God to be due.

The service proceeds to list various sinners the Bible calls ‘accursed’ — not just idolaters or cursers of parents, but those who move their neighbour’s landmark as well. Most of us would agree with someone who listed these sins that they are bad — those who purposefully divert the blind, adulterers, fornicators, murderers of the innocent for profit, those who trust humans rather than God and the rest.

But we are careful today to use the word ‘cursed’ of those who commit these sins. Deuteronomy isn’t, declaring a whole swathe of sinners cursed (Gk. epikataratos, Lat. maledictus)* before entering the Promised Land. And in Deuteronomy, as in 1549 and 1662, the people are to answer, ‘Amen,’ to each declaration of cursedness.

I do not think that this service is either excessively ‘Reformed’ in the most dour vision of the Reformed or ‘mediaeval’ in the most fire-and-brimstone vision of mediaeval piety.

The purpose, as with much mediaeval and Reformed proclamations of sin, is to call sinners to repentance. No doubt the Mosaic version had much the same bent. Sin is a reality and it has real consequences. Part of Lent, at least in western views since the Middle Ages, is to repent us of our sins.

If the list of sins seems a bit much to us, perhaps that is good. Perhaps we need a reminder of our own ‘wretchedness’ (to use another BCP word). Once we stand face to face with our own depravity, then can we all the more rejoice in God’s grace.

This is the end goal of healthy mediaeval and Reformed piety. Not for us to spend our lives in sack cloth and ashes, rubbing excrement on our faces like King Priam upon the death of Hector. No, rather, it is for us to acknowledge our own brokenness and to turn to the redeemer for the grace he gives and to be transformed into his likeness.

Finally, a note for those who think this sort of call against sinners is ‘Old Testament’ or ‘too mediaeval’ or ‘Reformed’, take note of the lists of sinners who will not partake in the Kingdom of God according to St. Paul, take a look at Tertullian’s work On Modesty, observe Leo the Great’s calls to sinners, read the Eastern Greek Mark the Monk’s fear for his own salvation despite his asceticism. It is a healthy balance to our joy, not something to abandon because of certain excesses in particular times, places, and traditions.

*If I can’t do Hebrew, I can at least pull out the Classical languages!

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