The liturgy in Lent has as its central concern the preparation of the church for the main event of Easter: Christian initiation. Lent itself came into being as the time of final preparation for those chosen for Holy Baptism, at a time when all Baptisms were done at Easter. The candidates, who had been in an intense period of training for Christian living—lasting three years in most cases—were solemnly admitted as candidates at the beginning of Lent. They, their sponsors, and the whole church spent that period in prayer and fasting, additional instruction, and performing works of mercy in preparation for the Baptisms at the Easter Vigil. It was also a period in which those who had been excommunicated for serious sin did penance in order to be restored to communion at Easter.
This remained the pattern for many centuries. Once most people in Christendom were baptized, however, and the Baptism of infants became the norm, such an extended period of instruction began to fade. Nevertheless, the season of Lent had become ingrained and it persisted. Shorn of its original focus, it became a time for the members of the church to renew their commitment to Christ as they anticipated the great feast at Easter.
Many of the liturgical customs of Lent stem from those earlier times and can best be understood in that light. Some customs, in fact, need that understanding or else they will be contradictory to the central meaning of Lent and Easter. This is because many of the customs, having lost their original purpose, were distorted.
In the past fifty years the liturgical churches have been reforming their rites for Lent, seeking particularly to recover the baptismal emphasis of the season and of Easter. The Book of Common Prayer as revised in 1979 embodies much of that, as do the revised rites in the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Churches, and others. Another important factor is the dramatic increase in recent years of adult candidates for Baptism, the churches adopting once again an intense preparation for the Baptism of adults like that of earlier days, and the restoring of the Great Vigil of Easter as the primary liturgy of the year.
A number of Lenten customs have distorted Christian faith and living, because they so easily play into the hands of popular misconceptions which dominate Western society and religion. Those misconceptions include individualistic and often nostalgic piety, sentimentality, and, in this country, a do-it-yourself mentality borrowed in religion from American culture. The effect of all this on Lent has been unfortunate. It has produced an attitude of seeking to carry out the Lenten obligations as personal religious exercises with little relationship to the larger Christian community; of greater concern for one’s personal salvation than with ministry to others; of attempting to make up for past failures with extra religious activities; and an over-emphasis on activities and services geared primarily to the production of religious feelings rather than growth in knowledge of God and the deepening of our reliance on divine grace.
The liturgies of Lent in The Book of Common Prayer which are the center of our Lenten observance are the means of correcting such distortions. They can, when understood and used, rescue us from individualistic piety, from sentimentality, and from the futility of attempting to save ourselves. They will inform and enrich our prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. They will aid us in deepening our experience of the saving acts of God in the past and thereby strengthen our faith, enabling us to recognize the actions of God in our world, our culture, and our lives.
Above all, a serious and committed participation in the liturgies of Lent will enable us to discover anew the meaning of Baptism and to renew—and have renewed in us—what God accomplished in us when we were baptized.
The church’s liturgy on Ash Wednesday invites us “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” This first day of Lent sets the pattern for our Lenten observance: one which leads directly to our recognition that we are mortal, we will die and, indeed, are in the process of dying all the time. Our sin is not the primary focus of our attention. Instead, our recognition that we are sinful moves us to an awareness of our need to change and be changed. Our repentance becomes not an end in itself but a renewed relationship of children to God opening us to accept God’s love, mercy, and peace.
As a result, prayer, fasting, and self-denial are saved from being mere good works for our own benefit, and instead free us and our time and our resources to a new and deeper scope of ministry to others.
Finally, in the scriptures we recover once again the story of God’s mighty acts of salvation for the entire human race: we discover once again that we are part of a vast company of believers in every age on pilgrimage into God’s kingdom.
When we receive the ashes on the first day of Lent, we do so within the Body of Christ. Here, in the company of our fellow sinners, we are not in danger of taking pride in our penitence because we are all alike in our sinfulness. We should consider carefully, however, the words Christ addresses to us in the Gospel reading on this day, asking ourselves, “Can I wear these ashes into the world without feeling a kind of self-righteousness about them? Should I heed the Lord’s word and wash my face before going out from the Body into the world?”
The Lenten Sundays
On the Sundays in Lent, much of the festive nature of the liturgy is missing. Music is restrained, and the Great Litany may be used in the entrance rite. The decoration of the building and the use of color is reduced and restrained. Many use the old English custom of the Lenten Array: unbleached linen vestments, unbleached material covering the crosses and pictures, and only simple symbols stenciled in black on the vestments and veils. The word Alleluia is missing from the liturgy. But above all, the Word of God read in the liturgies has a different focus. It is the reading from the Old Testament which sets the theme rather than the reading from the Gospel.
These readings present us with a short course in the history of salvation: definitive moments in the past in which God’s intention to save the human race is revealed. Each year the Old Testament readings are as follows:
• Lent I: A story of the origin of the human race or the origin of the Hebrew people.
• Lent II: A story of Abraham and Sarah.
• Lent III: A story from the exodus of Israel.
• Lent IV: A story of God restoring Israel and reaffirming the covenant.
• Lent V: A prophetic vision of the kingdom yet to come.
These passages are our story and our hope. They are the heritage of the people of God, and they were fulfilled in the dying and rising of Jesus. In Jesus the cross becomes the tree of life and the flood becomes the saving waters of Baptism; the promise to Abraham and Sarah is fulfilled when God offers the only-begotten Son in sacrifice; Jesus becomes the New Covenant; our exile from God is ended as Jesus brings us home in the Resurrection; the promise made through the prophets is realized.
These passages are fulfilled in Baptism, when we are joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection. They are relived and celebrated in the Eucharist, when we are made one with him and he in us; when we are remade into the Body of Christ.
There are also three special Gospel readings used in Year A of the lectionary cycle: the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind, and the Raising of Lazarus. In each of these passages the gradual process of enlightenment which characterizes those preparing for Baptism, and which characterizes also the spiritual journey of all believers, is revealed. In fact, in parishes where there are candidates preparing for Baptism, these three Gospel readings may replace the usual ones every year.
The Paschal Mystery
In Lent we will frequently hear a word unfamiliar to English-speaking Christians, but one which, if we learn to use and understand it, will open our hearts and minds to the celebration of our redemption. The word is pascha. It is the ancient biblical word for Passover and is used in the Holy Scriptures both for the exodus/Passover event which saved Israel in the time of Moses, and for the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we celebrate at Easter and on every Lord’s Day. Indeed in many languages the name of Easter is some variation of pascha—see particularly French, Italian, and Spanish.
Liturgists and theologians speak of the “Paschal Mystery,” a phrase heard often in the liturgy during Lent and Eastertide. Its meaning is brought home by William Pregnall, former Dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. He describes the Paschal Mystery as the saving event by which God in all times and in all places saves the human race. It has been specially manifested at four points in history:
- In the Passover/Exodus, which freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and journeying to the promised land;
- In the death and resurrection of Jesus, which saves us from slavery to sin and death and leads us into the promised land of God’s kingdom;
- In Holy Baptism, when we each become participants in the dying and rising of Jesus, and partakers of its benefits;
- In our participation in the Eucharist, where all of these past events become present to us again and we are active participants in them.
Lent is not a gloomy time, a sad time, or a depressing time for those who are remembering what God has done for them. Our self-examination, which reveals our sin, prepares us to recognize our need for God. Then we gather Sunday by Sunday in the liturgy where our story as the people of God reminds us that God has met and still meets our need. Our fasting and self-denial give us the resources with which we can join Christ in his struggle against evil and death. Joining him in that struggle, we also join him in his victory.
From The Rite Light: Reflections on the Sunday Readings and Seasons of the Church Year. Copyright © 1998 by Michael W. Merriman. Church Publishing Incorporated, New York.