TRUE Christian penitence is not just for Lent, as the Book of Common Prayer makes clear in its Collect and Bible readings for Ash Wednesday, which this year was last week.
The BCP launches the season of Lent with a reading from the Old Testament book of Joel. The prophet exhorted the wayward people of Israel: ‘Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn even unto me with all your heart and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil’ (Joel 2v12-13 – King James Version).
Because of their wilful rebellion against him, the people of Israel had experienced the Lord’s judgment in the form of a plague of locusts devastating their land. But the divine purpose behind the judgment was restorative; the Lord’s desire was to move his people to genuine repentance through the preaching of his prophet.
Joel contains the lovely line Winston Churchill referred to in his speech to the House of Commons in 1936 opposing the British government’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany: ‘And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten’ (Joel 2v25).
Joel’s exhortation to God’s people to ‘rend your heart, and not your garments’ is one of the Scriptural sentences the minister reads out to the congregation at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the BCP. So, it is manifestly a text for all the year round.
True penitence, turning from rebellion against God and embracing his forgiveness and mercy, should be practised in the heart of the Christian, at the core of his or her being. The Absolution said by the minister after the General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer reminds the congregation that ‘Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live . . . pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.’
The Absolution continues: ‘Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
It is noteworthy here that doctrine and dogma are very important in the spirituality of the Prayer Book. The BCP is full of dogmatic statements from the Bible, which God’s people are urged to accept as authoritative.
After the opening Scriptural sentences at Morning and Evening Prayer, the minister says: ‘Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness.’
Who can truly say the Church of England is not foundationally doctrinal? Such biblical doctrine is not oppressive, but liberating, because when it is taken to heart, it leads us to the God whose truth sets us free. If biblical doctrine were abused to oppress people, then the Church would need to correct that. But is excessive doctrinal rigour really the danger the 21st century Church of England faces?
Significantly, the Ash Wednesday New Testament reading from Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel counters the Christian equivalent of virtue-signalling. Jesus commanded his disciples: ‘When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly’ (Matthew 6v16-18).
The Ash Wednesday Collect captures the biblical essence of true Christian penitence which the Prayer Book teaches all year round:
‘Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that 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.’