Bill Long 2/15/08
Moving to the Book of Common Prayer
Even though the public denunciation of sinners was part of the earliest Christian Ash-Wednesday rituals, this sort of "public penance" soon disappeared in the Middle Ages. One of the aims of the English reformers was to bring back some kind of expression of public penance as a means of church discipline. Indeed, Calvin, who either taught or was the inspiration for many English reformers, had a vibrant (though some would say oppressive) view of the importance of church discipline. The way the English reformers did it was through the interim 1549 Prayer Book, which had a rite entitled as follows: "The First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday," which opened with a homily which included "the general sentences of God's cursing against impenitent sinners" (Deut. 27). Ah, now we are getting somewhere, aren't we? With this kind of divine condemnation in sight, the word commination can't be far off.
The 1552 Book of Common Prayer changed the title to read "A Commination Against Sinners, with Certain Prayers To Be Used Divers Times in the Year." Here is a copy of that liturgy. Let's focus on getting the "flow" of the commination so that we truly get the flavor of this liturgical act on Ash Wednesday. I will quote from a 1662 version of it, which is identical to the earlier one but is written with modern spelling. After Morning Prayer, "the Litany ended according to the accustomed manner," and then the priest began:
"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."
Because you have read my first essay, this is nothing new to you, even if this wouldn't go very far in the American church today. Let's go on...
"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."
A few interesting things come from this. We can already sense the zealous spirit of the reformers, who really would have loved to restore the primitive church discipline by "outing" individual sinners for discipline but they probably could not agree among themselves as to how this would work. So, they had to content themselves with a generic denunciation of sinners, with the help of the Scriptures, of course. They chose Deut. 27, which is the passage where Moses told the people of Israel that when they entered the Promised Land, they should be separated into two groups, the one to stand on Mount Horeb (the mount of blessing) and the other to stand on Mount Ebal (the mount of cursing). The Levites would declare blessings and curses and the people would antiphonally say "Amen."
In an attempt to recreate that covenantal seriousness of blessing and curse, the liturgy of Commination went on. Can you believe this?
"Cursed is the man that maketh any carved or molten image, to worship it..." And the people shall answer and say, "Amen."
No one really ever said how likely it was in 1552 or even in 1660 that people would be tempted to repair after the worship to their home smithies to hammer out an idol and then fall down and worship it. So, it wasn't very hard, I suppose to curse such a man. It might have been harder to curse someone who coveted his neighbor's shiny new barouche, but fortunately they were attacking molten images at this point. Let's continue.
"Cursed is he that curseth his father or mother. Amen."
Getting a little closer to home, but still pretty easy to avoid.
"Cursed is he that removeth his neighbor's landmark. Amen."
I think someone could look at this literally and say to himself, "never done that!"
"Cursed is he that maketh the blind go out of his way. Amen."
No problem on that one, I am sure.
"Cursed is he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, the fatherless, the widow. Amen"
This calls down a curse on those who deprive these categories of people of justice.
The Following Words
I could go on with the curses for a little longer, but I want to hasten on to some of the choice words the minister was supposed to say after the people had agreed with all the curses. Let's hear it.
"Now seeing that all they are accursed (as the prophet David beareth witness) who do err and go astray from the commandments of God; let us (remembering the dreadful judgment hanging over our heads and always ready to fall on us--my NOTE:--did Jonathan Edwards perhaps have this in mind as he generated his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?") return unto our Lord God, with all contrition and meekness of heart; bewailing and lamenting our sinful life, acknowledging and confessing our offenses, and seeking to bring forth worthy fruits of penance. For now is the axe put unto the root of the trees, so that every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: he shall pour down rain upon the sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest; this shall be their portion to drink. For lo, the Lord is come out of his place to visit the wickedness of such as dwell upon the earth, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire...."
I kid you not. This goes on and on for many more lines. I probably quoted about 15% of the minister's "prayer." Which is your favorite line? Do you prefer the hewn down lines or the fire and brimstone? These are all Scripture passages, but the sum of them really gives a gloomy aspect, a sense that life is hanging in the balance and that we shall all be cast quickly into the lake of fire lest we confess our shortcomings pretty quickly.
Then, when the people are in this condition they recite (what else?) Psalm 51, begging for God's mercy. A Kyrie Eleison follows, which then is followed by the Lord's prayer, a little liturgy and more prayers by the minister, to the effect that God would hear their prayers and forgive the people. In fact, by the end of the liturgy, which must take about 20 or so minutes to read, the people must truly feel clobbered.
I need one more essay to conclude my thoughts.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long