Ash Wednesday Charts a Course for All of Lent
Looking at the presidential prayers as a unique expression of faith
For many people, Ash Wednesday stands alone at the beginning of Lent with the imposition of blessed ashes. The relationship of this day to all of Lent and to Easter receives little reflection. However, Ash Wednesday has a definite purpose for charting the course for the Christian observance of Lent, a time of intense “purification and enlightenment.”
All of Lent, especially with the emphasis on the liturgical calendar reform that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), is more completely understood as looking toward Easter. “Lent is ordered to preparing for the celebration of Easter, since the Lenten liturgy prepares for celebration of the Paschal Mystery both catechumens, by the various stages of Christian initiation, and the faithful, who recall their own baptism and do penance” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, No. 27).
Everything about Ash Wednesday points toward Easter and the necessary discipline to keep Lent as a preparation for the resurrection of the Lord for those to be baptized and for the baptized.
The centerpiece of the liturgical celebration of Ash Wednesday is the proclamation of the word of God. The biblical texts give the fundamental shape to the beginning of Lent and all of Lent, especially with the Lord’s own plan in the Gospel of Matthew (cf. Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) for several weeks of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The blessing and distribution of ashes that follow upon the announcement of the saving word of God deepen the need “to gain pardon for sins and newness of life” made possible “through a steadfast observance of Lent” (see Roman Missal, The Blessings and Distribution of Ashes). The sacrifice of Christ realized with the Eucharistic prayer brings the grace of the Redeemer to all to see the word of God and the aim of the sacramental ashes realized on Ash Wednesday and all through Lent.
The Ash Wednesday presidential prayers highlight in prose this divine dynamic found in the word and Eucharist. I suggest having a copy of the Ash Wednesday presidential prayers handy as you continue with this article.
Presidential Prayers of the Day
The presidential prayers assigned to Ash Wednesday, combed from the tradition, form a unique expression of the faith of the believing People of God. “These prayers are addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ, in the name of the entire holy people and all present” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 30).
As such, these orations announced by the priest give textual form to the promptings of the Spirit in the hearts and minds of the liturgical assembly. The Ash Wednesday collect, the prayer over the offerings, the prayer after Communion and the prayer over the people specifically give direction to the observance of all of Lent.
While each of these prayers has a context in the different parts of the Mass where they occur — and hearing them in those contexts is most important — they are replete with spiritual content that should linger through Lent.
The collect, which concludes the introductory rites of the Mass, gives expression to the character of the celebration (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 54). The character of the Ash Wednesday celebration is disclosed in the collect’s reference to the “campaign of Christian service.”
It is the baptismal duty of the Christian to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. This is the constant in the “campaign of Christian service.” These are, essentially, the opening words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark (cf. 1:15). This same injunction may be heard again during the imposition of ashes. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” is one of two possible choices when the blessed ash is imposed. Such a campaign, which takes on an intensity with Lent, requires the day’s obligatory fast for Christians to be so focused and oriented to “battle” anything that impedes the following of Christ. This campaign “to battle against spiritual evils” necessitates a daily Lenten program of concentrated prayer, concern for the needs of others and fasting. This Lenten campaign — with Christians “armed with weapons of self-restraint” — looks to the promises of Easter.
The prayer over the offerings, which concludes the preparation of the gifts, always leads directly into the actual sacrifice of Christ that occurs with the Eucharistic Prayer. On this Ash Wednesday especially we are reminded of the significance of the “annual sacrifice for the beginning of Lent.” This encounter with the death and rising of Christ renders effective “the works of charity and penance” in our “campaign of Christian service,” which is precisely to “turn away from harmful pleasures.” An additional point is made in this oration with the allusion to the power of Christ’s sacrifice. Those who “devoutly” participate in the offering of Christ, his passion, are cleansed from daily sin. This point is an intentional reminder to the baptized to do the same each Sunday — in fact, at every Mass — so that when Easter arrives and the Lenten campaign has ended, Christians will celebrate the Resurrection truly purified and enlightened.
The prayer after Communion, which concludes the Communion rite, “prays for the fruits of the mystery just celebrated” (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 89). The principal fruit of holy Communion is “an intimate union with Christ Jesus” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1391). Holy Communion also “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism” (No. 1392). Additionally, holy Communion “separates us from sin” (No. 1393). Thus, holy Communion cannot provide for an intimate union with Christ without, at the same moment, cleansing us from past and future daily sins (cf. No. 1393). A grasp of these fruits of holy Communion renders the prayer after Communion even more meaningful for Ash Wednesday.
The “Lenten fast” identified in the prayer after Communion links with the “holy fasting” that begins with Ash Wednesday, a generic way to refer to the 40 days of Lent. As the collect recognizes the Christian’s need to “battle against spiritual evils,” the prayer after Communion, with the fruits of holy Communion, prays that the sacrament “may sustain us” and be a “healing remedy” as the Lenten campaign of Christian service begins.
The prayer over the people, although a blessing more than an oration, further directs our observance of Lent, especially for “those who do penance.” The use of the word “compunction” in this prayer seeks a grasp of its meaning. Commonly, “compunction” can be described as an anxious feeling that comes from an awareness of guilt, of failing in our duty, our Christian duty. Compunction prompts a response. As the Mass concludes, and in anticipation of the blessing and dismissal, the priest celebrant prays that God will “pour out a spirit of compunction” on everyone. This spirit affords those who have encountered Christ in the celebration of the Ash Wednesday Eucharist a genuine desire to maintain with integrity the course of Lent’s discipline to the end and to be faithful without faltering. As the priest-celebrant asks the Lord to “pour out a spirit of compunction,” he, likewise, asks the Lord to extend his “mercy” so that all may “merit the rewards” promised “to those who do penance.” These rewards are the graces, blessings and joys of the Easter celebration of the resurrection of the Lord. Ash Wednesday, all of Lent, points to Easter!
Lent demands conviction, conviction about the ever-present Redeemer’s gift of salvation from his cross and resurrection, conviction about Christian fidelity to the Gospel, and conviction about conversion from sin to a deepening life in Christ. The strong and clear language of the Ash Wednesday presidential prayers fosters this conviction. The prayers alone are not enough to ensure that this conviction passes into the manner of life of Christians. When the orations are prayed and received in the Holy Spirit, then the texts take root in the hearts and souls of the baptized and those to be baptized.
FATHER DENNIS GILL is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Opening Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
— From the Roman Missal