ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who 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 our Lord. Amen.
The Ash Wednesday collect is one of the most familiar in the Prayer Book. The rubric directs that it ‘is to be said every day in Lent…until Palm Sunday’ (p. 124), which makes this collect, with that for Advent, one of two seasonal collects in the Prayer Book tradition. No doubt in part it is this repetition throughout Lent which makes the collect so familiar. When the great season of Lent approaches each year, we do well both to memorize the collect for daily use and also to contemplate its meanings.
One of the most notable features of the Prayer Book’s style is its use of pleonasm. A pleonasm is a figure of speech that uses more words than are necessary in order to say something. A pleonasm makes use of redundant or parallel expressions, and so says the same thing or something similar in two ways: ‘humble and hearty’, ‘goodness and loving-kindness’, ‘holiness and righteousness’, ‘good and perfect’, ‘Mediator and Advocate’, ‘honour and glory’, ‘alms and oblations’, ‘thy faith and fear’, and so on.
The Lenten collect leans heavily on such pleonasms. Consider the following: ‘Almighty and everlasting’; ‘who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent’; ‘Create and make’; ‘new and contrite’; ‘lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness’; ‘remission and forgiveness’. The prayer in fact is a string of parallel and balanced constructions and phrases. The collect does move forward, as all collects do, from an address to God, through a petition to him, to a concluding doxology. In particular the Ash Wednesday collect addresses God, with a reflection on his love for all of his creation and on his forgiveness, and then petitions him to create in us the contrition that will lead to our forgiveness. But this forward movement is slowed down by all the ‘ands’ and pleonasms. In this way the collect differs from that for Advent (p. 90), which makes little use of pleonasm but rather accumulates ideas and themes in a more direct movement forward.
Parallel terms invite us to consider a subject closely. Two slightly different aspects of the matter are presented to the reader or person praying, who is thereby led to reflect upon it more carefully. So, for instance, God is ‘almighty and everlasting’. Those terms present two divine attributes, omnipotence and eternity, which are related but not logically identical. So too, lamenting my sins and acknowledging my wretchedness are two related but also different acts. My sins are lamentable because they are my sins, because they offend God’s goodness, because they alienate me from what truly makes for my happiness. My sin leads to true wretchedness, so that as I see my sins for the lamentable things they are, I cannot help but recognize and acknowledge that I am wretched because of them. Sin is lamentable not least because it makes us wretched and unhappy. And our wretchedness is most lamentable because we are largely responsible for inflicting it upon ourselves through our sins. By reflecting on the difference between such parallel terms, we enter more deeply into the matter than if we had only a single term.
What strikes me most about the content of the Lenten collect, as opposed to its rhetoric and style, is its total lack of sentimentality. Prayers of confession and penitence are by their nature most inclined to focus upon us, to be vehicles by which the person praying reflects upon himself. If sentimentality is emotion about emotion (for instance, being in love with being in love, enjoying being miserable, etc.), then prayers of confession naturally tend toward sentimentality. But the Lenten collect is rigidly centered upon God, not us. It begins with God himself with his various attributes: God is almighty, everlasting, the lover of his whole creation, and the source of forgiveness for the penitent. The collect then seeks to form contrition in us, not by making us wallow in consideration of our sinfulness – which would put us in the center of the picture – but by petitioning God to ‘create and make’ contrition in us – which puts God at the center. Forgiveness is a grace, a free gift, which we do not achieve by making ourselves contrite, but which we receive as a new creation from the God who created everything in the first place and who hates nothing that he has made. We can make ourselves sinful, which God hates. But if God makes us anew by grace then he cannot but love us – for he hates nothing that he has made.
It is a perfect prayer, or nearly so, in a Prayer Book full of prayers of equal quality.