Sermon Preached by the Revd Canon Peter Moger

‘Such a sad service for such a happy day.’ So Queen Victoria is supposed to have said to Prince Albert after having attended Communion on Easter Day. And she had a point. Because the Book of Common Prayer—from which the service was taken—is not strong on seasonal focus. Turn up to a service in Lent and to one at Easter and there’s not a great deal of difference – apart, that is, from the readings, the hymns and the musical settings. When, at the English Reformation, he put together the first Prayer Book in English in 1549, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was bent on simplicity – and that meant undoing the complex seasonal variations in the worship of the late medieval Church.

But a place where Cranmer did specify a seasonal focus was in the instruction that, for the whole of the season of Lent, the Ash Wednesday Collect was to be said or sung at every service after the Collect of the Day. In Common Worship, the option exists for the Ash Wednesday Collect to be said as the Post Communion prayer at each service. The same thing happens in Advent – with the Advent Sunday Collect being prayed every day of the season.

The effect of repeating the same prayer day after day, is that, over time, it becomes lodged in our consciousness; it becomes part of our mental and spiritual furniture, to the extent that it can start to form us from the inside out. The prayer gradually becomes a part of us as we hear it and absorb its content.

But what does this prayer – the Collect of Ash Wednesday – actually say? I encourage you to turn to it now, in today’s Order of Service.

          'Almighty and everlasting God,
          you hate nothing that you have made
          and 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 receive from you, the God of all mercy,
          perfect remission and forgiveness;
          through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,....'

The prayer starts, as all good collects should, with a statement about the nature and character of God. Here we are told that God is almighty and everlasting, but more than that – that God hates nothing that he has made, and that God is forgiving. This is something all of us can usefully take to heart. How often have we entertained the thought, or heard someone express the idea, that God must hate us because of who we are or what we have done? This collect is reminding us that such a thing is impossible – that it flies totally in the face of nature and the character of God: who God is and how God is. It is impossible that God could hate any part of the created order – and that includes you and me.

Cranmer composed this Collect from scratch for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer – unlike some of the collects there which are English translations of medieval Latin prayers. The prayer places its focus firmly on the need for our repentance in order to receive God’s forgiveness. The prayer asks God to

'create and make in us new and contrite hearts.'

This line derives from two verses in Psalm 51, where the Psalmist prays 

'create in me a clean heart, O God: 
and renew a right spirit within me.’ (51.10)

and acknowledges

'a contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.' (51.17)

Psalm 51 is the Lenten Psalm par excellence. It features prominently in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. It’s a Psalm ascribed to King David and is seen as his response of penitence and contrition after having committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then having arranged for her husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed in battle. It’s a deeply personal Psalm, and one which has continued to speak personally across the generations, of the need for ‘new and contrite hearts.’ And so it seems right that it should have inspired a prayer which is repeated throughout the whole season of Lent.

But why create and make – isn’t that a tautology – saying the same thing twice? Well, not exactly. This line has a strong resonance with the opening chapters of the book Genesis, where there are two, quite distinct (and very different) creation stories – one in chapter 1, the other in chapter 2. (Do go away and look them up afterwards.) And in each, the process of creating is quite different. In the first, the creating is done by the creator standing as it were outside what is being created. God said ‘Let there be light’ – and there was, and so on. But in the second account, God brings into being from within what is being created – breathing the breath of life into the creation by the Holy Spirit. This is ‘making’ – rather like the artist, potter, sculptor, embroiderer, wordsmith or composer, who painstakingly shapes and re-shapes, with a deeply personal relationship between the artist and the artefact.

In the Ash Wednesday Collect, these two approaches to creation come to life. On the one hand, we are praying to the almighty, transcendent God—the God who stands outside the created order—to intervene, to issue a fiat, a command: ‘let there be a new heart.’ On the other hand, we are praying for God to create a new heart from within, shaping us by his Spirit living within us.

The season of Lent is an annual reminder that we need God’s help to be made anew. We know from experience that self-help will go only part of the way. We need the help of the God who can break into our lives and change us from without. But Lent also reminds us that change also needs to take place from within. That becoming the people God intends us to be can’t be achieved by a quick fix, but is a slow process as we are shaped by our re-creator.

   Take away, good Lord, this Lent, the sin that corrupts us;
   and restore by grace your own image within us,
   that with new and contrite hearts,
   we may again become your people;
   in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.