Observing Lent

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Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 25th and leads to Easter Day on April 12th this year.

The lectionary for Lent provides a very rich selection of readings for public worship each Sunday in Lent.  Often the purpose of the lectionary is missed in the debate over whether or not the pastor should exercise freedom in the selection of Scripture readings for the Sunday Service. Its main purpose is to ground the congregation in salvation history so that we may participate by faith here and now in the salvation wrought by the triune God.  This is obvious in the readings this Lent since they focus so clearly upon the story of God's salvific acts in history.

The Old Testament readings offer an opportunity to remember the covenants the Lord made to Noah, Abraham, and Moses, leading up to Jeremiah's promise of a new covenant realized in Jesus Christ.  The Psalms are prayers to be prayed in response to the Old Testament readings.  The Epistle readings consist of the epitome of the Gospel of redemption according to the witness of the apostles and diverse apostolic communities.  And, the Gospel readings from Mark and John concentrate on Jesus' ministry as the beginning of the enactment of the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection for our salvation.  A coherent series of sermons and services from either the Old Testament, Epistle, or Gospel readings could be a powerful experience of hearing afresh the good news that we are saved by faith in God's grace through the suffering obedience of God's Son.

Lent is a time when the congregation not only worships the triune God, but also practices self-denial as a spiritual preparation for Easter.  Often we interpret Lent in an individualistic fashion and emphasize personal devotions and fasting.  While this is good and necessary, the life of the congregation as a whole should reflect a Lenten observance.  Sometimes, the food a congregation shares during Lent is no different from that of any other time of the year.  If I am visiting a local congregation that is eating a big meal with lots of desserts during Lent, then I assume that the individual members are not being led to practice fasting, or, if they are, then the congregational practices are harmful to the spiritual disciplines of the members.  The congregation could agree to have no desserts during congregational meals and emphasize simplicity, including having only vegetarian offerings.  Of course, there are exceptions which can be made, such as a hundred year anniversary that occurs during the Lenten season; even in such cases, a congregation which is serious about spiritual disciplines would make it clear that this anniversary is an exception and  would continue to remind its members to be faithful in dedicating the Lenten season to the practices of certain disciplines.

Lent is an excellent time to observe a Love Feast, when bread and water are shared and persons give their testimony about their faith in Christ.  Since the lectionary during Lent focuses on God's salvation and faith as the personal means of participating in God's salvation, this season is a wonderful time to have a Love Feast so that the testimonies of personal faith complement the proclamation of salvation by faith in the Sunday Service.  If no Love Feast is planned, persons could be asked to give a testimony during the Sunday Service to demonstrate personal response to the Gospel being proclaimed.

The climax of Lent is Holy Week beginning on Passion/Palm Sunday on April 5th.  The primary focus of this Sunday is not Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but his passion.  Since most members do not attend services every day in Holy Week (if they are held), it is best to read the passsion narrative on this Sunday and proclaim the meaning of the Lord's death for our sakes.   The reading about the entry can occur in a processsional while the passion narrative becomes the focus of the service.  Unless this pattern is followed on Passion/Palm Sunday, then a congregation may never hear the story of Christ's death on the cross read and proclaimed during an entire year!  Such an omission is a serious distortion of the Gospel and of the narratives of the four gospels themselves since they are organized around the story of Jesus' crucifixion.  It is no wonder that some church members view Jesus as a prophet rather than as the crucified Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world.  It is a powerful experience when a congregation hears the entire passion narrative read in the Sunday Service, especially when it is read in dramatic form with different persons reading the parts of different characters in the narrative.  Of course, people who are moved by the Lord's death on Passion/Palm Sunday are even more overwhelmed by the good news of his glorious resurrection on Easter Day.

Lent is more than the chronological time of forty days (not including Sundays) before Easter when the liturgical color is purple.  It is a time for the church to give attention to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ which is the center of our faith, to practice ascetic and spiritual disciplines as means of receiving God's grace, and to share our faith and renew our witness and service in the world.


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