Lent begins—with a threat

The Book of Common Prayer traditionally began Lent with a service called “A Commination” (which means “a threatening”). You can read the service here. You might find it a bit harsh. Many others have found it too difficult and the service has been excised from modern editions of the prayer-book.

The poet William Wordsworth lamented the service’s unpopularity, even in his own day, in a poem called “The Commination Service.”

I discovered this poem when I was given a collection of Wordsworth’s poems recently. This poem comes from his “Ecclesiastical Sonnets.”

Here is the poem:


SHUN not this Rite, neglected, yea abhorred,
By some of unreflecting mind, as calling
Man to curse man, (thought monstrous and
Go thou and hear the threatenings of the Lord;
Listening within his Temple see his sword
Unsheathed in wrath to strike the offender’s head,
Thy own, if sorrow for thy sin be dead,
Guilt unrepented, pardon unimplored.
Two aspects bears Truth needful for salvation;
Who knows not that?—yet would this delicate age
Look only on the Gospel’s brighter page:
Let light and dark duly our thoughts employ;
So shall the fearful words of Commination
Yield timely fruit of peace and love and joy.

I especially like his line “yet would this delicate age/ Look only on the Gospel’s brighter page.”

Wordsworth found the ears of his times too delicate to hear of God’s wrath falling upon sinners who do not turn away from their sins. How much more so ours?

No one wants to hear of his sin, both personal and collective, let alone of his own guilt and complicity in it.

This reminds me of a quote from Thomas a Kempis, “Jesus has now many lovers of the heavenly kingdom but few bearers of His cross.” False religion is as easy to enjoy as true religion is to ignore.

Why do we need a Savior? Because our sins really are as terrible as God says they are. There is simply no hope for you or me or anyone without the Blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross to atone for our sins. The old prayer-book was better at reminding us of this.

You can read more about the commination service and the thinking behind it from my friend, Professor Samuel Bray of the University of Notre Dame, here.

Incidentally, the book I found the poem in is interesting in and of itself. It was published in London in 1869 and given as the Prince Consort’s prize for German to a scholar at Eton in 1887.

This post originally appeared on the author’s Substack.


  • The Rev. Jake Dell is the Priest-in-Charge of St. Peter’s Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. He is a member of the board of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion-USA.

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February 27, 2023 2:34 am

Well, I’m going to mention the-all-too obvious. Today we have the bad fruit that abandoning The Commination, and avoiding The Ten Commandments, was & is, guaranteed to foment.
Yes, The Commination is difficult to swallow while reading it, and listening to it, but when wasn’t it ?

Today Moloch; Baal, Astarte, and Ashera have returned, and their presence is one of the consequences of no longer reading & accepting the truth of The Commination.

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