What should we do
in the face of A Commination? 

14th February 2024

Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God.… And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel in a loud voice: “ ‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’ “ ‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen…’
Deuteronomy 27:9, 14-16, ESV

In the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 there is a little-known and used service called ‘A Commination’ (from the Latin word comminari meaning to threaten or denounce). The title goes on to elaborate that it is ‘the denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners.’ According to the rubric it is to be used ‘with certain prayers…on the first day of Lent, and at other times’. So, on this Ash Wednesday it is very appropriate to look at this important part of our Anglican theological heritage. 

The priest/presbyter is to read out the ‘general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners,’ taken from Deuteronomy 27 and other parts of the Scripture. That provides us with the link to the passage cited above. Moses instructed the twelve tribes when they entered the Promised Land to gather, six tribes to stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people and six tribes on Mount Ebal for the curse. The Levites were instructed to declare to all the men of Israel the curses. 

What was the idea behind the Reformation Anglican Church reviving this ancient practice and does it serve us in the 21st Century? An answer to the question is contained in the Collect for the First Day of Lent which is to be said daily for the 40 days of Lent: 

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: make in us new and contrite hearts so that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Reading out the whole of Deuteronomy 27 is a sobering experience, and that was and is as it should be. We are reminded of what relating to a holy and just God involves and there is nothing that we can do to solve the problem. So, as we come before the Almighty and everlasting God, we can only come lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, knowing that we deserve nothing from the hand of the only one who could do something.

That could lead us to despair, but we are reminded that this God does not hate anything that he has made, perhaps leaving a little chink of hope; yet there is still the problem of his holiness and perfect justice. Cranmer’s Collect however reminds us that our God is a God of all mercy, and he offers perfect remission and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord. So, Deuteronomy 27 and A Commination both exalt Christ and the achievement of the cross 'for Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.' (1 Pet. 3:18, ESV)

Being made alive in the spirit also reminds us of our need for the Holy Spirit’s activity, to make us alive with new and contrite hearts, both recognizing our wretchedness and enabling us to live lives of obedience. 

The service of Commination finishes with some wonderful prayers to our Most mighty God, and merciful Father. As we enter Lent it is still vital that the Holy Spirit, acting through sword of the word of God, brings us to repentance and enables us to put our trust in the finished work of Christ. We have many advantages over the 12 tribes on their mountains, not least the knowledge of how God would resolve the conundrum of his holy justice and his steadfast love. 

Bishop Andy Lines
Presiding Bishop
Anglican Network in Europe