Collect for Ash Wednesday

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q: Please tell us about the Collect for Ash Wednesday. Is it from an ancient source, or is it a more recent composition? Has it always been associated with Lent, or did it originally have a different purpose? In choosing it for Ash Wednesday, was there any discussion of using it to develop a deeper understanding of lenten pastoral practice and worship?


A: The earliest evidence we have for that prayer is in the seventh-century Verona Sacramentary, so it was probably composed at least by the sixth century—one of the oldest prayers in the missal. There it appears in the middle of prayers for Pentecost, but with a heading that indicates it was for a day of fast in April. Honestly, it looks out of place. 

When the Gelasian Sacramentary adopted it in the eighth century, it set it on Ash Wednesday, prayed at the church of St. Anastasia near Circus Maximus in Rome, and from which the pope would make a penitential procession up the Aventine Hill to St. Sabina Church, where he presided for the Ash Wednesday Mass. (Today the pope starts at Sant’ Anselmo on Ash Wednesday and walks in procession to St. Sabina. It’s level ground and easier to manage.)

In the preconciliar missal, the same prayer concluded the ceremony of the imposition of ashes. After the introit, a different prayer served as the collect.

When the missal was revised after the Council, this ancient prayer was promoted to become the collect for the Ash Wednesday Mass. The first English translation softened it: “Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil. As we begin the discipline of Lent, make this day holy by our self-denial.”

Today, it’s a lot punchier: 

“Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting

this campaign of Christian service,

so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,

we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”

I don’t know if, when the missal was revised after the Council, there was “any discussion of using it to develop a deeper understanding of lenten pastoral practice and worship,” but it sure sets the stage for that to happen.

When I prayed it in Kansas City this year a few hours after the mass shooting following the Super Bowl rally, I felt the contrast between those before me who were arming themselves with weapons of self-restraint and those outside who had armed themselves with weapons of self-assertion.