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A Very Full Time: How Can We Observe Lent?

The old Sunday school table our executive committee was meeting around was pencil-marked and showed signs of paste. As I looked up from its surface to those who had gathered, I thought we looked a bit worn and tired. The days ahead would be busy: Maundy Thursday services tonight, community-wide Good Friday services tomorrow, and then the finale—Easter Sunday sunrise and morning worship. We had talked about our busy schedules as we made sandwiches in the kitchen. Now we were shuffling papers alongside napkins and coffee cups as we talked about who would make the necessary follow-up phone call to confirm a particular speaker.

Then it happened. In the midst of old business and in the middle of a sandwich, Ken set everything down and stopped. We all stopped too and waited. After a moment he said quietly, "This is a very full time." Full is an understatement, I thought immediately, anxious to continue so I could leave by one o'clock. But Ken didn't continue. He seemed to be waiting for us to take in his words: full—a very full time. I swallowed rather loudly in the quiet. Uneasily I began to realize that Ken meant something different than I had first assumed, something more than I had experienced. Ken had known Lent.

What Do We Know of Lent?

Most of us know something of Lent, whether or not we have participated in its activities. We may recognize Lent as that period of time before Easter on the church calendar. Or we may know people who have observed Lent by fasting, sacrificing a favorite entertainment for a few weeks, or setting aside money for a special cause.

But while we may acknowledge Lent as a time of spiritual discipline in the lives of others, and although we would readily admit that we also seek spiritual depth, observing this church season hasn't been our practice. Many of us are skeptical about participating in such practices because we are uncertain whether they are consistent with our faith tradition.

But perhaps it's time we gave Lent a second thought.

In Response to the Resurrection

From its conception the church was formed by the gospel message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each Sunday's worship became a celebration of Christ's resurrection, and Easter, the anniversary of that resurrection, was set aside as a particularly holy day.

The church celebrated its earliest Easters with an overnight fasting-and- prayer vigil. Later this vigil was extended to include Friday and Saturday also, corresponding to the hours of Jesus' death and burial. During the third century, in Alexandria and very likely in Rome, the pre-Easter fast extended to all of Holy Week and then to a three-week period. In the fourth century the Lenten season in both Christian centers took the shape it holds today: a rigorous forty-day period, excluding Sundays.

The number forty has biblical significance alluding to, among other events, Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness and the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert. Sundays were excluded from this period because they express the resurrection as a present reality.

As Preparation

At its heart, Lent has always been a season of preparation. During the weeks of Lent the early church catechized those who would be baptized on the coming Easter morning, instructing them in the fullness of the faith. Others who had been estranged from the church's fellowship were called to repentance so that they might be received more fully again.

Later this theme of repentance permeated the faith community, as did almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Through these activities the church sought to enact its oneness with the Lord in service and sacrifice. Lent developed because these Christians recognized the call to prepare to follow Christ in obedience, the kind of obedience in which taking up a cross preceded resurrection.

The call to prepare is not new to God's people. Biblical stories of preparation touch the breadth of life, from the everyday to the eternal. Meals were prepared from manna and quail on desert sands or from lavish foods in the banquet halls of kings. Scriptures describe the preparation both of altars and of the offerings placed upon them. The Bible announced preparations for retribution or redemption to restore justice to the peoples. Careful preparations are outlined for God's presence whether in ark and temple or as Emmanuel and Spirit.

But underlying all of these, and becoming their focus, the call to preparation is essentially a call to prepare God's pathway into human hearts. Isaiah 40:3 tells us of "A voice of one calling: 'In the desert prepare the way for the Lord,'" and we hear its echo reverberate through the gospels: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him" (Matt. 3:3; cf. Mark 1:3). Again and again prophets are sent to call God's people to repent, "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17).

Reformed Christians have a history of recognizing this call to prepare and responding to it. We begin worship with the Approach to God, preparing—through confession, forgiveness, and praise—to receive God's Word. A service of self-examination has traditionally preceded our celebration of communion. Our understanding of covenant speaks of an awareness of God's preparation for us.

Choosing Lent

How do both the biblical heritage and our Reformed tradition inform our modern-day decision to prepare for Easter? The resurrection miracle is that Jesus Christ is risen, and in him we too have died to sin and are alive again. Our design for preparation, then, should also be based on the pattern of our Lord. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, holds forth a helpful image in his description of Jesus' life: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men and…humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him" (Phil. 2:5-11, RSV).

In preparation for Easter we might well see Lent as a time of emptying and filling our lives. Because the whole faith community gathers together to worship, Sunday morning services provide an excellent setting in which to hear God's call to preparation. Banners, songs, and sermons based upon the scriptural theme of preparation are appropriate. The very movements of worship express the emptying and filling preparations of Lent. We become empty of sin through God's forgiveness, are fillec with gratitude, and resolve to follow Christ in obedience.

The role of confession and self-examination should play a prominent role in Lenten worship, emptying us of sin. (On Easter Sunday perhaps the liturgical confession of sin can be omitted as we give way to an extended joyful confession of the resurrection; Easter is pure celebration.) The Scriptures should also be prominent during this season: As the Word is proclaimed, we are emptied of our limited, secular world view and filled with a vision of God's larger reality. We are emptied and filled once again through prayer and through giving to the needy. Then, coming to grips with the purpose of our own humanity, we,like our Lord, are sent out as servants. As this awareness of who we are grows, we gain deeper insight into worship as well as Lent.

Admittedly, the early church excluded Sundays from the forty-day Lenten preparation; yet the intention in doing so was to celebrate Easter as a present experience amid Lenten observances, not as a distant destination or reward. In today's congregations, in which Lenten practices are not nearly so widespread, choosing to incorporate Lenten awareness into the Sunday services approaching Easter can bring a similar perspective.

And this is a perspective we need. So often we feel our lives are already very full. In the midst of rustling papers and busy agendas, the voice of Lent stops us and quietly speaks of fullness in Christ.