Mormon Lectionary Project: Ash Wednesday, Year A
The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all 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 you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Like Advent, Lent signals new life on the horizon. Shorn of all the secular trappings of Easter, the beginning of Lent is thus, along with First Advent, perhaps holier than the holiday it precedes. It is a day worth paying attention to, but in doing so, we admit our Anglo-Catholic tendencies. We Protestants (and Mormonism, whatever its doctrinal divergences, is culturally Protestant) have had an uneasy relationship with Lent, the 40 days (not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Henry VIII, for example, allowed the eating of dairy products, hitherto forbidden during Lent, in his new English church. The Puritans abolished Lent altogether before it was reinstated by Charles II in 1664. By Victorian times, it had almost disappeared from English custom as one Yorkshireman ruefully noted in 1865:
At the beginning of Lent the most inveterate of card-players (and their number was legion) used to lay aside their packs of cards, and would not on any account so much as touch them during the whole season of Lent; but now, however, the practice is very different. 
The low churches still officially avoid Lent but it is making a comeback among the liturgically-minded and even among the secular who are looking for another incentive to give up their stubborn vices a couple of months into the new year.
But before we start contemplating a pre-Eastertide period of austerity, let us first enjoy the pleasures of Shrove Tuesday. To “shrive” means to confess or absolve. Before the Reformation, a midday bell was rung to call the faithful to be shriven but became, in a happy inversion of tradition, a sign to indulge in one last moment of worldly pleasure before Lent. In English tradition, this meant that the eggs and fat forbidden during Lent were used to cook pancakes. “Pancake Day” survives and is accompanied by Pancake races such as the one that just took place in my cathedral in which the choristers ran around the cloisters flipping pancakes in a pan. Other frivolities included 150-a-side games of football, rope pulling, and that old example of English barbarism, cock-fighting. I imagine there was time for sex too, given the abstinence required during Lent. Americans know all of this as Mardi Gras, of course.
The tone changes on Ash Wednesday. On Tuesday we ate, drank, and were merry, now we are dead men, marked with ash, ungodly. Public confessions of sin are no longer in favour in Mormonism, our weaknesses mostly kept quiet behind the bishop’s doors. Few of us proclaim, as did Nephi:
O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins . . . (2 Nephi 4: 16-17).
Kristine Haglund reminds us of our fallen condition when she wrote about Ash Wednesday in 2011:
I am a sinner. And so are you. Despite our best intentions and earnest efforts, we will bruise and tear each other’s souls and psyches in ways we can’t hope to mend–grace sews up the ragged edges of our hearts, but we are scarred for life. For this life, anyway.
This is the simple yet terrifying confession of Ash Wednesday. We are dead men. If it stays like this we are in real trouble, for “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:1-12 NRSV).
Yet all is not lost. Paul proclaims that “for our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21 NRSV); despite his earlier lamentation, Nephi “know[s] in whom [he has] trusted” for the forgiveness of his sins (2 Nephi 2:19). We also take comfort in the Psalm: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103 NRSV). I love that acknowledgement — “he remembers that we are dust” — for it speaks so well to God’s mercy and his understanding (through the Great Condescension) of the human condition. He knows it is hopeless. The ashes thus become a sign of forgiveness and not condemnation. You are ashes, you are dust, but you cannot help it so I will help you . . . if you are penitent.
Now shriven we can prepare for Easter through the observation of Lent, a holy time in which we should, in Richard Foster’s words, cultivate “the discipline of simplicity.” We must be aware of two pitfalls in Lent, however. First, is the siren call of asceticism, its extremities appearing so holy and thus so rewarding. As Foster suggests, “asceticism makes an unbiblical division between a good spiritual world and an evil material world.” Lent is for simplicity not privation. The second is related: “simplicity is the most visible discipline and therefore the most open to corruption.” In “giving things up” for God it is so easy to canonise our choices and to publicly display them as badges of honour. Let your Lenten fasts be in secret, therefore:
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:16-18).
Easter is coming. Let us prepare joyfully and with simplicity.
This post is also the next in the Christian Disciplines series (“Simplicity”).
1. Quoted in The English Year, p. 61, by Steve Roud.