Ash Wednesday’s ashless collect

It is interesting to note that the collect Thomas Cranmer composed for Ash Wednesday presumes the absence of the practice most often associated with the observance, namely, the imposition of ashes. The English Reformers believed too many superstitious beliefs had grown up around the practice and saw it as too closely connected with attrition, auricular confession, contrition, priestly absolution, and penance — doctrines they believed to be errant.

Consequently, Archbishop Cranmer composed a new collect which emphasized repentance and forgiveness, rather than fasting and penance.

Almighty and everlasting God, which hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that be 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.

Additionally, in the Gospel reading assigned in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Jesus explicitly denounces the hypocritical outward expressions of righteousness which the Reformers believed such rituals had become.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:16-21 ESV)

It was not until the nineteenth century that the imposition of ashes was reintroduced in the churches of the Anglican Communion. It began gaining popularity in many Protestant churches in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century.

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