An Ash Wednesday Compline Service

Our church does not have a strong Ash Wednesday tradition. Before COVID-19, our only Ash Wednesday observance was a 6:30 a.m. service for New York City commuters in the congregation. Once we were back in full-program mode, I began to think about Ash Wednesday, and my first thought was that I didn’t want to go back to a 6:30 a.m. service. One night after choir rehearsal I noticed a light had been left on in our parish hall, and I went to turn it off. I was struck by the quiet of the space, the high ceilings, arches, and wood floor dimly lit by the streetlamps. The place I knew well from coffee hour, church dinners, and the like was transformed in that moment to a place of beauty and peace. That’s where the idea for an Ash Wednesday Compline service started to take shape, an experiment that turned out to be one of the most memorable worship experiences of the year.

The service combined elements from the Anglican Compline (Night Prayer) service with the imposition of ashes. The parish hall was transformed into an intimate sacred space conducive to the spirit of repentance, reflection, and renewal that is the essence of the season of Lent. At the center of the room we arranged a table with rocks, bare branches, candles, and a bowl of ashes. We set up chairs in a horseshoe configuration around the table, with the choir and musicians stationed at the sides of the room. Votive candles in the windows and minimal lighting helped to create space for quiet reflection. The hall’s acoustics were especially favorable for unaccompanied choral music, and our choir worked diligently to be able to sing all the music—including plainchant used in the service of Compline—without accompaniment apart from handbells that sometimes tolled or sang.

For Sunday worship, our congregation splits into two separate services: traditional worship in one space and contemporary worship in another. One of the unexpected blessings of this Ash Wednesday service, held in a space that was neither traditional nor contemporary, was the opportunity to worship as one body of Christ. May this article inspire you to take a new look at the spaces in your church as well as at ancient worship practices and consider how they might be transformed to create a fresh worship experience for your congregation.



Welcome to our Ash Wednesday Compline service. The word “Compline” comes from compleo, a Latin word that means “complete,” so this is a service of prayer at the completion of the day. Compline is a time to reflect on the day past, confess your sins, and commit yourself to God’s care, just as Lent is a time to reflect on our lives, repent of our sins, and commit ourselves to following Christ more completely.

Our service tonight combines elements of the Anglican Compline service with the observance of Ash Wednesday, when we sharpen our awareness of how much we need Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who died for our sins and rose victorious on Easter. You will be invited to respond in words or song at various points during the service; the words and lyrics for these responses will be projected.

We’ll begin now with a time of silence. We encourage you to put aside the cares and concerns of the day. Turn your thoughts toward God, and wait for him.

[You may choose to project this verse during the silence: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5, NRSV).]


Call to Worship

Opening Song: “I Will Wait for You” Kauflin et al.

[In a time of silence following the singing of “I Will Wait for You,” the Christ candle may be lit.]


The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.


Be alert and of sober mind.

Your enemy the devil prowls around

like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Resist him, and stand firm in the faith.

But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us.

Thanks be to God.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

—from “An Order for Night Prayer (Compline) in Traditional Language” © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, 2000–2004. Reprint permission requested.

Psalmody and Gospel Reading

Psalm 31:1–6 [either read or chanted by the choir using Sarum Psalm Tone VIII 1; alternatively, read Psalm 31 and sing the refrain, “My Times Are in Your Hands” LUYH 458]

In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust.

Let me never be put to confusion.

Deliver me in thy righteousness.

Bow down Thine ear to me.

O haste thee to deliver me,

and be thou my strong rock and house of defense

that thou mayest save me,

For thou art my strong rock and my castle;

be thou also my guide and lead me for thy name’s sake.

Draw me out of the net that they have laid privily for me,

for thou art my strength.

Into thy hands I commend my spirit,

for thou hast redeemed me,

O Lord, thou God of truth.

—Bishops Bible, 1568

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:28–30


Into thy hands, O Lord  (Plainsong, soloist, and choir)

Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,

for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.

Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of your eye.

Hide me under the shadow of thy wings. 

Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

—from “An Order for Night Prayer (Compline) in Traditional Language” © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, 2000–2004, Reprint permission requested.


Prayer of Confession

Psalm 51 [Interspersed throughout the reading of the psalm will be a sung response, “Create in Me a Clean Heart” by Linda Langstaff. The music can be found in the print edition and in our digital library]

Reader 1: Have mercy on me, O God,

According to your loving-kindness;

In your great compassion blot out my offenses.

Wash me through and through from my wickedness

and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me. 

Against you only have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight.

So you are justified when you speak

and upright in your judgment.

[sung response]

Reader 2:  Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness,

that the body you have broken may rejoice.  

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out my iniquities.

[sung response]

Reader 1: Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  

Give me the joy of your saving help again,

and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

[sung response]

Reader 2: Deliver me from death,

O God of my salvation,

and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness. 

Open my lips, O God,

and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,

but you take no delight in burnt offerings. 

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.

St. Helena Psalter, The Order of St. Helena ©2000, Church Publishing Inc.

[sung response]


Assurance of Pardon

Reading: Psalm 103:8–14

Sung Response: Gloria Patri” LUYH 961



[Choose a Scripture text on which to meditate that is appropriate for your context, perhaps Joel 2:12–13 or Isaiah 64:6–8. Conclude the meditation by inviting people to come forward for the imposition of ashes. The passage could also be projected during the imposition.]


Imposition of Ashes

Words of Imposition

From dust you were formed,

and to dust you will return.

Repent, and believe the gospel.

Scripture Readings

Joel 2:12–13

Isaiah 64:6–8

Choral Anthem: “God So Loved the World” Chilcott


Nunc Dimittis with the Lord’s Prayer

Nunc Dimittis

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel.

—Luke 2:29–32

The Lord’s Prayer

Let us continue together in prayer.

“Our Father . . .”



Hymn: “Abide with Me” (st. 1–3) Lyte, LUYH 466, GtG 836, SSS 475


We will lie down in peace and take our rest.

For it is you, Lord, only

that makes us dwell in safety.

Abide with us, O Lord,

for it is toward evening,

and the day is far spent. 

As the watchmen look for the morning,

so do we look for you,

O Christ, our rock and our salvation. 

The almighty and merciful Lord,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,

bless us and preserve us this night and always.


—from “An Order for Night Prayer (Compline) in Traditional Language” © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, 2000–2004. Reprint permission requested.

Sung Blessing: “Da Pacem Domine/Grant Us Your Peace O Lord” Taizé 33

Linda Langstaff serves as the director of traditional worship at New Providence Presbyterian Church in New Providence, New Jersey.

Reformed Worship 150 © December 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.