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At the center of our lives as Christians are the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. At the center, therefore, of our worship together, spiritually, and very often physically, is the cross; the cross on which Jesus willingly gave his life that we all might have life and have it abundantly. The passion, death, and resurrection are also at the center of the church year. Every Sunday is a little Easter and the cyclical organization of the liturgical year focuses around the retelling of the Passion narrative and the surprising great good news of the Easter acclamation, "Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed!" Therefore, each year during Lent, we join Jesus on the journey to the cross, and it is a journey into which we all have been invited. "Pick up your cross," commands Jesus, "and follow me." It is the cross of love and discipleship, faithfulness and devotion, repentance and renewal.
Forty Days of Purpose
Evangelical pastor Rick Warren has had great success lately inviting individuals and congregations into forty days of purpose. During those forty days people are invited to reflect upon God's story and God's call to them and the meaning of their lives. Lent, however, is the original forty days of purpose. For most of its history, the church has understood Lent to be the time when people were called to do just that, reflect on the purpose of their lives in Christ, where they had gone astray, and how they might rejoin Jesus on the journey toward wholeness and fulfillment in God.
In each community of the faithful we will find people at every stage of the Christian journey. Some are, to use Paul's image, milk Christians (see 1 Cor 3:2). New to the faith, they have yet to hear all of the gospel stories or to shape their lives in this way of the cross. Others, although they may have been a part of the community for a long time, have left the path of Christ for a variety of reasons. Wandering away, they are the lost sheep Jesus was sent to recover. And others, to return to Paul, are solid meat Christians. They are ready to explore and wrestle with the difficult questions. They want to know what it means to pick up their cross. They want to know who is their neighbor and how they might meet the needs of those neighbors. They want to deepen their life in the one who gave his life for them.
As a part of its preparations for the glorious celebration of Easter, the church called for a period of reflection, renewal, penitence, and preparation. The forty days of Lent that begin with Ash Wednesday and culminate in Holy Week, the week of the Passion, are a time not only for those who are already Christians but also for those seeking to become the adopted children of God through baptism, to enter into this journey with Christ.
In this book we will explore the nature and character of the worship and preaching of the services of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday. How might we shape our prayers and our preaching in ways that will encourage reflection and preparation? How will we help our congregations to set off on the journey so that, as they arrive at Easter, they might fully join their voices with the witnesses in every generation who have joyously proclaimed that "Christ is risen," and that they "have seen the Lord"?
Preparation for Pascha
It took several centuries to arrive at a church year that looks something like the liturgical calendar that we follow today. For the first two centuries the focus was only on Easter or Pascha, which was tied to the Jewish observance of the Passover. It was during those events that Jesus had been arrested, tried, and crucified, and it was that story that the church told over and over again.
The community knew that it was important to tell and retell the Pascha story of Christ's passion and resurrection each and every time they met. That story gave them their identity, their purpose, and their future. And, unlike their Jewish ancestors who celebrated the Passover but once a year, they quickly decided that they must celebrate their "Passover" through death into life each and every week.
Sunday became the "Eighth Day," the "Day of the Lord," the day on which they told the story of the resurrection and shared the meal as Jesus had commanded them. It was the little Easter. Yet the yearly celebration of Easter was the center of the Christian year and all other seasons of the church year expanded from that day—to the fifty days of Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and Advent.
The Lenten period served several purposes. One was preparation for the celebration of the Easter Vigil. It was a period of fasting—abstaining from eating meat, and, if possible, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the opportunity to pray at the actual sites. But there does not seem to have been any consistency as to how long the fast was to last or what was involved in the preparations.
Lent also became the period of intense preparation for those individuals who were going to be baptized and welcomed into the church at the Easter Vigil—the lengthy service that occurred over Saturday night into Sunday morning. After at least three years of catechesis, education, and testing, those deemed worthy and ready for initiation entered into this final period leading up to the vigil that included fasting and exorcisms. How long this period should last was the subject of lengthy debate, with the church finally settling in on a period of forty days that would have to begin on a Wednesday since the Sundays preceding Easter were not to be considered fasting days. A tradition had already developed of fasting forty days in Epiphany, following the observance of the baptism of Jesus. Those forty days were to imitate Jesus' forty days of testing in the wilderness.
Finally, Lent was a period of penitence for those whose actions were considered sinful and had separated them from God and the community. People were enrolled in the Order of Penitents. They were given the opportunity, through fasting and acts of public penance, to make ready for readmission to the community at the Easter Vigil.
Through this lengthy process of historical development, those of us in the Western churches have arrived at the contemporary interpretation of Lent—the forty days of preparation that precede the celebration of Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, sixand-a-half weeks before Easter. It is counted as forty days because Sundays are excluded from the count. Easter, being a moveable feast—the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox—means that Ash Wednesday is also moveable and can occur as early as February fourth and as late as March tenth.
Walking the Way of the Cross in the Fourth Century
In 383 CE, a woman named Egeria joined a group of pilgrims traveling to participate in the Paschal events and liturgies in Jerusalem. Her journal accounts of those observances give us an invaluable record of how early Christians sought to join Jesus on the way of the cross. On Palm Sunday, they gathered before the tomb of Lazarus. The following day they walked the path of the procession of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, waving their palms as the people had done centuries before. Throughout the week, Egeria tells us, they walked and prayed, telling the story and recalling Jesus' actions during the "Great Week." Those were, they knew, historical events, the actions of a real man who had picked up and carried a real cross.
So, during that week, that holy week, the pilgrims sought to join their savior on that real journey. They walked the Via Crucis or Via Doloros. They gathered in the headquarters of Pilate. They walked through the streets of Jerusalem, where Jesus had walked. They stopped where he fell and where he grieved over the women of the city, and they stood on the hill outside the gates. On Good Friday the pilgrims gathered for a vigil before a portion of the true cross. And finally, on Saturday evening, they observed the Great Vigil.
Egeria's story was foundational as the church developed its worship life together. If you would like to read more about her travels you might read her own words in Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, translated by George Gingras (New York: Newman Press, 1970). You may also find more information about her in Maribel Dietz's book, Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims (University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 2005) and James White's book, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993).
Walking the Way of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century
Jesus calls each of us to pick up our cross and follow him. How might we, who are the followers of Christ, enter into Lent today? How can we use these forty days to deepen our lives in and with Christ, with our neighbor? How might we, who have been called to be disciples, use these days of preparation and penance as an opportunity to walk the way of the cross, to join Jesus in the journey to the cross?
The Journey—Instant and Immediate?
An invitation to the lengthy Lenten journey of preparation may be problematic for people today. We live in a world that expects and demands the instant and immediate. We become impatient if we have to wait at all for anything. A visit to a grocery store tells us that we want instant oatmeal, instant coffee, and minute rice. Most of us have come to rely on our microwave to boil our water and pop our corn.
Computers, likewise, while wondrously expanding our world and possibilities, have also made us annoyed with anything that is less than instantaneous. We instant-message and text, and communicate with people all over the world in the blink of an eye. Whether it is buying tickets for a popular movie, making dinner or airline reservations, or registering for a college class, we depend on the computer to do it quickly and efficiently. We bank and pay bills online anytime of the day or night. Instantly and immediately we know our bank balance and take care of all of our business.
While we may not yet have achieved the mode of travel envisioned in the Star Trek series, the distances on our globe have shrunk tremendously. We now think nothing of traveling across the country or across the ocean. What used to take weeks now takes only a matter of hours. For most of us, the concept of a journey is no longer arduous or life threatening. We board a plane in New York, and five hours later we step off in Los Angeles.
As wonderful as this all is, it has the potential to make it difficult to invite people to a less-than-"instant" journey to the cross. We are speaking to an "I want it and I want it now" world. But that is not what Lent is about. It is about entering into a gradual, deliberate journey of instruction, self-reflection, examination, and reparation.
Fasting—Watermelon and Candy?
Many people have a rather limited understanding of Lent. They view it only as a time to give up something we like—candy, desserts, or television.
I had a seminary colleague who always gave up watermelon for Lent. He loved watermelon but knew that he was safe in giving up a summer fruit during the spring. In those days watermelons were only available in the summer. Consequently, the chances of being tempted to break his Lenten fast were fairly slim.
Our Lenten journey, although it may include abstaining from certain foods or activities as a way of reminding us of what we are doing, can be much more than that. It can be a time for us to realize the purpose of our life and to deepen our relationship with the one who gave his life for us. The traditional understanding and Lenten practices of the early church provide us with rich possibilities as we seek to journey to the cross.
Preparing for Baptism
While most churches will not want to return to the early church's tradition of only baptizing new members at the services of Easter or Pentecost, Easter can be an excellent time to bring new members into church and bring them into the waters of baptism as the church celebrates the movement of death into life. Lent could then return to one of its earliest purposes, preparing individuals for baptism.
In addition to the Sunday services during Lent, the six-and-a-half weeks can be a time to provide educational opportunities. Newcomers to the faith would be able to explore the scriptures, the church's story, what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to live the Christian life.
Lenten Disciplines: Deeper and Deeper in Our Faith
Lent is a time to bring new people into the church, but it is also an opportunity for those who have already been baptized and have become members of the body of Christ to deepen their relationship with Christ and with the other members of the church. Consequently, the catechetical courses offered to those preparing for baptism would also be a wonderful opportunity for others to learn more about and grow in their faith.
Lent is not only about fasting and denial—giving up eating certain foods or eating meat on Friday—undertaking abstinence can be another way for people to grow and deepen their faith. The purpose of such an approach is not punishment; it is a reminder of the days of preparation and the end of the journey, the death and resurrection of Christ.
Giving alms has always been an important Lenten discipline. Lent might also be a time for individuals as well as congregations to take on new projects and missions. It is a time to become aware of the neighbor and strangers who are in need. How is God calling us to meet the needs of those other children of God?
The Broken Made Whole
Finally, Lent can be a period of self-reflection and examination. How have we failed to live the life that God would have us live? How do we neglect and ignore our neighbor? It is a time to uncover our brokenness, our finite nature, and the ways that we live incomplete, imperfect lives. We must not deny or avoid the reality of sin in our lives and in the world around us. Only by confronting the principalities and powers that seek to overwhelm us will we come to the end of our journey understanding that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come ... will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38).
Cleaning House—The Lenten Environment
Egeria and her companions were able to enter into their Lenten journey surrounded by the streets and buildings of Jerusalem. Most of us, however, are not able to travel to the Holy Land for our Lenten pilgrimage. Therefore, an important goal of those planning and conducting worship is to prepare a proper Lenten environment that will allow people to participate more fully in the journey.
As Jewish families prepare to celebrate the eight days of Passover, they begin by cleaning their homes. They sweep in every corner. They clean out the cupboards. All this cleaning is an effort to remove anything, even a crumb that is leavened. During the days when they will be both recalling and living their hasty departure from Egypt and their Passover from slavery into freedom through God's gracious deliverance, they are to eat only matzoth—unleavened bread.
As your community prepares for Lent then, is a time to clean house—to remove the clutter and dust. If your community worships in a more traditional space, Lent should be a time of stark emptiness. If the normal elements that decorate the worship space are removed, people will have a visual reminder that they are involved in a time of intense reflection, repentance, and contrition. The decoration, or lack thereof, will stand in sharp contrast to the superabundance of flowers and festive hangings and vestments of Easter.
Where flowers normally are placed in the worship space, they should either be removed or replaced with simple, bare branches. The seasonal hangings for Lent should be either purple or a rough cloth such as burlap.
If your community worships in a more contemporary space, similar efforts might be made. Hangings of rough, neutral-colored cloth and arrangements of branches will be visual signals that something is happening. If you place trees in your worship space at Christmas and lilies at Easter, then it is important to modify your worship environment during Lent.
Excerpted from Lenten Services by Lucy Lind Hogan Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Ch. 1 The Journey to the Cross 1
Ch. 2 Ash Wednesday 12
Ch. 3 First Sunday in Lent 26
Ch. 4 Second Sunday in Lent 39
Ch. 5 Third Sunday in Lent 51
Ch. 6 Fourth Sunday in Lent 65
Ch. 7 Fifth Sunday in Lent 80
Scripture Index 93