Morning and Evening prayer (lauds and vespers) for Ash Wednesday form a kind of synopsis of What Lent is about and what to remember as we progress through these 40 days of penance before Easter.
To begin with, there are two options for the psalter of Ash Wednesday: Wednesday week IV or Friday Week III. I always go with Friday III: it is so obviously appropriate for this day,with the penitential Psalm 51--A pure heart create for me O God, put a steadfast spirit within me--and its lamentation from Jeremiah's canticle. On the other hand, if you or your groups decides to go with Wednesday IV, you get that very stout antiphon: My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. A great battle cry for lent, isn't it?
Moving ahead to the reading of morning prayer:
You are a people sacred to the Lord,your God; he has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people peculiarly his own.
Focus on the word "peculiar". It has two meanings, illustrated by the following sentences:
1.Those Catholic are a little...peculiar,don't you think?
2. It's a species of fish peculiar to the Great Lakes.
In the reading, God is telling us we are peculiar in the second sense: uniquely belonging to him. Set apart. But in responding to God's invitation to be his children, we will sooner or later find ourselves appearing "peculiar" to other people. If non-catholic co-workers spot ashes on your forehead, and notice those meatless lunches on Friday, they might think you peculiar for caring about such things. Our Church's recent stand on issues of conscience and freedom in the context of contraception and the HHS manate has brought what is considered a very "peculiar" teaching to the attention of others in recent years.
Lent is the time to embrace our "peculiarity". In both senses of the word.
Next, notice the responsory: God Himself will set me free from the hunter's snare, from those who would entrap me with lying words, and from the hunter's snare. This is one of the many places in the Liturgy of the Hours where we can apply a prayer not just to ourselves --in this case the hunter is Satan, temptation, and my own sinful inclinations--but also, we should listen to the voice of Jesus. He knows his enemies are after him. Here he expresses confidence in his Father.
From here, I want to call attention to both the morning and the evening antiphons for the Gospel canticles:
Morning: When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face, like the hypocrites.
Evening: When you give alms, do not let you left hand know what your right is doing.
These two lines of scripture summarize what our attitude should be about our lenten practices. Don't let your family and friends know how it's just killing you to not check your email more than twice daily. Smile a lot. And don't show off by dropping little references to your good deeds when you are with people who would be impressed. If someone suggests that your should do more A or be more B, don't counter by dazzling them with the C,D,E,F and G that you are already doing.
Now, jumping to the reading for Evening Prayer:
Work our your salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who of his good pleasure works in you both the will and the performance.
This one verse says it all about the faith and works issue that protestants like to bring up. Yes, Jesus saves us. No, our response to saving grace is far more than just the "sinners prayer". Yes, God helps up with the "far more" part too.
Finally, the Closing Prayer (same as the Collect at the day's mass)
This is one of those cases where you really want to glue a copy of the new translation into your breviary, since there is so much more here than in the old version. This is a man's prayer, and when it comes to penance, we all want, as Teresa of Avila advised her nuns, to "Be Men!"
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian sevice, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with the weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ your son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.