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!

Lent

Tomorrow, after we have celebrated St. Pancake Day today, is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent. One of the nice things about St. Leo the Great’s sermons is that they are ‘festal’ or ‘liturgical.’ Unlike exegetical sermons, their purpose is not to bring out the meaning of a biblical passage; rather, their purpose is to bring out the meaning of a liturgical feast.

I’ve been working on them slowly, starting around November; thus, in Advent I read his sermons on Advent, at Christmas on Christmas, at Epiphany on Epiphany. Now we are at Lent, and I am savouring his Lenten offerings.

In Sermon 41, Pope Leo says:

It is indeed fitting for us at all times, dearly beloved, to live wisely and purely, and to direct our wills and actions to what we know is pleasing to divine justice. But, when those days approach which the mysteries of our salvation have made brighter for us, our hearts must be made clean with more zealous care, and the discipline of virtue must be exercised more earnestly. As these mysteries are greater than any one part of them, so our observance also should surpass in some way our usual custom, and those who celebrate the feast withmore solemnity should also find themselves so much the more elevated by it. (Trans. Freeland & Conway, p. 176)

I agree. It is time for us to prepare our hearts for the celebration of the Feast of Feasts, of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus from the dead, of the day of our salvation, of the mysteries that make us into new people.

Many of us will be giving up chocolate or meat or coffee or alcohol or television or something along those lines. Others will read a spiritual book or do a deep study of a portion of Scripture. Still others will give extra of their money to a charity.

This last is something that Leo would approve of greatly, as seen in Sermon 40, where he reminds his congregation that the Lord approves of a fast that consists of giving to the poor and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.

What is more radical than giving of our money and giving up soda pop is giving of ourselves. Here is where I fail to live up the high falutin’ rhetoric of this blog most notably, I think. When do I give to the poor? When do I give my time and energy and skills to aid those less fortunate?

Perhaps I should take more seriously this call of Leo’s that runs back not only to Jesus in the Gospels but to YHWH in the Old Testament. Perhaps this Lent is the Lent to truly change how I live.

“worthily lamenting our sins”

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  As we prayed the various penitent prayers and Psalms at church, I couldn’t help but think of the strongly penitential tone of the BCP and its emphasis on actual sorrow for sins.  Indeed, in 1662, we “moan and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” although by 1962 this is mellowed to “acknowledge and confess”.  One of the beautiful prayers in Compline prays that “we may so abound in sorrow for our sins . . .”

Sorrow?  Lament?

We live in a world where, even amongst Christians, the very idea of sin is very unpopular, where the wickedness of the average human heart is ignored and denied — as in the modern liturgy used by my evangelical Anglican church last night where we confessed our “brokenness,” not our “wickedness.”  Yet, as Christine Watt preached boldly from the pulpit at last night’s service, Sin is real.  It is the root of so much pain and sorrow and suffering in our world.  It is the inner condition of humanity, the reason for our many daily small rebellions, let alone the big, flashy wrongdoings.

Yet even if we admit the reality of Sin and its insidious presence in our lives, damaging our relationships, distorting the beautiful image of God within us, do we lament?  We fight sin, surely.  We are good at the linguistic approach to repent, knowing that what it means is to turn 180 degrees and walk a new direction, as Josephus encouraging a Jewish soldier to repent and fight for Rome, or John the Baptist telling that brood of vipers to repent and live holy lives.

However, whenever we think of sorrow, we think of things quite repugnant to the modern mind.

We imagine ashes on our heads, rending our garments, rubbing excrement on our faces, shedding tears, flagellating ourselves, grovelling at the feet of a fierce, wrathful God who will destroy us with fire if we do not repent and live according to his rules.

We remember St. Ambrose saying that if we do not shed tears, we are not truly repentant.

We remember St. Thomas a Kempis’ endless sorrow for his sinful state that hung as a shadow over much of Soliloquy of the Soul.

Sorrow need not be so extreme.  Indeed, I do not believe that the Christian should spend his or her entire life weeping over sin and grovelling in the dust, for we are called to rejoice in the Lord always.  Christ says that if we love one another, our joy shall be full.

Nevertheless, sorrow for sin can be real.  I think it should be real.  If we know God, if we are in a real relationship with him, should we not grieve to harm him?  If we have compassion for the people around us, should we not grieve to harm them?  Indeed, we should.  Just as we rejoice to bring joy to our beloved, so it strikes me as natural to sorrow when we bring sorrow to our beloved.

Maybe this lament will be nothing more than an inner pang of regret when we do something wrong.  Maybe it will be larger, depending on the sin or its frequency.

And once this lament is done, once we have sorrowed for our sins, we should enter the joy of repentance.  We can live the new life.  We are reconciled to our Friend.  There is no longer any need for sorrow, for we are forgiven through our mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ.  Sorrow for sin, if real, should ever turn to joy in forgiveness, hope for resurrection.