Ash Wednesday is one of the two Major Fast Days (along with Good Friday) in DAYS OF FASTING, ABSTINENCE AND SOLEMN PRAYER TO BE OBSERVED IN THE ANGLICAN CHURCH OF CANADA (The Book of Common Prayer, Canada, 1962, p xiii). Ash Wednesday observance is found in two places: The Collect, Epistle and Gospel for THE FIRST DAY OF LENT COMMONLY CALLED ASH WEDNESDAY (p138) and A PENITENTIAL SERVICE FOR USE ON ASH WEDNESDAY AND AT OTHER TIMES (p611). The headings clearly indicate the the somber purpose of the day: fasting, abstinence, solemn prayer and penitence. It is to begin the annual Lenten preparing the ground of our souls for, according to the Collect for Ash Wednesday, the creation of new and contrite hearts that come from lamenting our sins, acknowledging our wretchedness, and seeking the mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness that only comes from the God of all mercy through Jesus Christ our Lord (p 138).
Although there is no rite for the imposition of ashes, there is plenty of opportunity and encouragement to repent in them (Job 42.6). Fasting, abstinence, solemn prayer and penitence are all practical ways by which, as we read in the Epistle for Ash Wednesday, we submit ourselves to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, cleanse our hands, purify our hearts and humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord (James 4.6-11a; BCP, p139). The Gospel for the day continues with more practical Ash Wednesday instructions about fasting and laying up our treasures in the appropriate place (Mt 6.16-21; BCP, p139).
The BCP's PENITENTIAL SERVICE FOR USE ON ASH WEDNESDAY AND AT OTHER TIMES (p611) is also full of excellent devotional material. In particular, I find the priest's exhortation with its invitation, "in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditation upon God's holy Word" (p612) to be a useful and challenging Lenten checklist. It reminds me to be honest with myself, knowing that my heart is deceitful (Jer 17.9). It reminds me that "repent" is the first word of the Gospel (Mk 1.15). It reminds me to pray more than sporadically—the Anglican offices of Morning, Mid-day, Evening Prayer and Compline provide a rich and trustworthy framework for private prayer. I've never liked fasting, but I suspect that's the point of it. It is healthy to deny myself as an expression of renewed reliance upon and devotion to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, it is a healthy reminder of my need to read my Bible and think about what I'm reading. If you need a "lectionary" to guide your Bible reading, there is an excellent one in the BCP starting in the tables at the front of the book on p xxii-xxiii. Try it. Who knows, you might find yourself being drawn to continue even after Lent is done. The BCP readings for Holy Week and the week after Easter are especially pertinent and wonderful.
I realize this can all be a challenge if you're not used to this systematic kind of piety. I know some people get hung up on the questions that arise as they read the prayers and the Scripture. But if you find yourself being snagged by questions or issues, jot them down so you can talk to someone you trust about them later, and keep going prayerfully. Ask the LORD to light phrases and verses up as prayers for yourself, your friends, your family, the church. Ask the LORD to draw you closer and to direct you. The important thing is to keep at it. Trust that the Father's amazing grace will be soaking into your heart, soul, mind, body and your relationships.
Enjoy. Be blessed.
Gene+The Rev Canon Gene Packwood is a retired priest in the Diocese of Calgary and is the Chairman of Anglican Renewal Ministries Canada.