Lent Is Beyond Words

I love to preach, but as I thought back over the lenten seasons of the last decade or so, I found it isn't the sermons of Lent that stand out in my memory. It's the liturgy as a whole. So much of our Reformed tradition revolves around the sermon, but Lent is beyond words. Lent and Easter are about actions. So my advice to pastors as they prepare for this season is, "Preach less in Lent."

Preach less, but worship more. Growing up, our community did nothing with Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday was always a seven-sermon marathon. Discovering an alternative was more exciting than finding buried treasure.

ASH WEDNESDAY

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." There is quiet beauty and strength in this call to reflect on our mortality and hope. The hymn, "Come Down, O Love Divine" could stand beside Scripture as the text for the evening. So could the powerful "My Song Is Love Unknown" PH 76, RL 284 . It has seven stanzas, but sing only the first on Ash Wednesday:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior's love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I, that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh, and die?

Then, throughout Lent, add a stanza each week until during Holy Week we are singing:

In life, no house, no home
my Lord on earth might have;
in death, no friendly tomb,
but what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heaven was his home,
but mine the tomb wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing
no story so divine:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days would gladly spend.

On Wednesday afternoon our confirmation class gathers around a backyard grill. We take the dried-out palms left over from the prior year's Palm Sunday and burn them. It always amazes us how it takes an armful of palms to make a handful of ash. The kids never fail to get the point. This is us! Although we think so highly of ourselves, we amount to very little. And yet Jesus thought enough of us to give his life for our sake.

That night we pass the ashes in a little bowl and ask each person to make a cross on his or her neighbor's forehead, saying: "[Name], remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The first year we used ashes I asked the people to come forward, explaining that I would administer the ashes. Frankly, this scared some of them. So the next year we simply had the ashes on the Table and invited those who wanted ashes to administer them themselves on their way out of church. This was terrible liturgically and far too individualistic for any sense of the corporate.

Finally, we decided that it might be best if those who did not want ashes on their forehead would stay away from this service. Ash Wednesday is, after all, about ashes. If you don't want to be reminded, don't come. But be fair to your people. Surprises of the Spirit are fine, but if you know something is going to be different at worship, respect your people enough to tell them: "Ashes will be administered at the Ash Wednesday service at 8:00 P.M."

PALM SUNDAY

I love having a lot of services during Holy Week so that we don't have to compress everything into one service and call it "Palm/Passion Sunday." I just can't switch moods that fast. Good liturgy takes time. This is no spiritual jiffy lube for Christians in a rush.

On Palm Sunday we celebrate. We meet in the fellowship hall and read the story from the Bible. We give the kids drums and kazoos. We create holy chaos. Everyone gets a palm to wave as we make our ragtag way from fellowship hall, down the hall, out of the building and around to the church's front door. We are pilgrims singing the psalms of ascent. We lose our kids in the confusion, and they end up with some other family. Palm Sunday has become a tradition the children look forward to. By the way, we invite the children to the other services of Holy Week too. They do not get excluded from Maundy Thursday or Good Friday just because those are somber, the way some adults exclude children from funerals, thinking they can't handle it. Of course they can't—if they're not there! It's another reason for acting things out more and talking less during these services.

MAUNDY THURSDAY

We meet, once again, in the fellowship hall, and that's not by accident. The place of our praises is also the place of our breaking and sharing and betrayal. As we enter the room, everyone sits around simple tables. The light is provided by candles. This year the baker made the bread in the shape of a cross. I don't know if that's too gimmicky, but it was powerful visually when it was ripped into pieces and each table received a part.

This service alternates between the liturgy for the Last Supper, with passages of Scripture that tell the story, and hymns sung a cappella. Upon reflection, we realize that we are the sermon that night. What we are doing is the sermon. We hear God's Word, and we understand it in the doing of it. In Calvin's way of thinking, we are raised to Christ as we share this meal. It is not the bread and wine that make a sacrament, it is not the words that hold power, it is not the memory or gathering of the people; it is all of these together that raise us to commune with Christ. We are the disciples with him.

GOOD FRIDAY

Some people were so upset they walked out. (Someone else decided to join the church that night.) Do not attempt the following unless you are prepared for reaction.

Marcel Dupre composed a piece called The Stations of the Cross, Opus 29. If music can draw pictures with sound, this piece does it better than any I've ever heard. One person said on the way out, "That was terrible music when Jesus died." "Yes, it was," I could only reply, "it was terrible indeed."

Our organist introduced me to the piece. Together we selected five stations to use for an hour-long service. He spent weeks practicing. I spent weeks listening and then joined each station with a passage of Scripture or poetry or a writing of Bonhoeffer or other saints and martyrs or current events from the daily paper, which led into times to listen to the music and periods of silence to reflect.

As the music for each station began, one of the young people carried a plain wooden cross made of old two-by-fours to a win-dowsill in the sanctuary, followed by another young person who extinguished the candles on the sill. At last the cross moved to the Table, and the young person picked up the single candle and carried it out of the church. We were left in darkness as the people stood and the bell tolled thirty-three times. When it stopped, there was silence and darkness, and we were alone. But then we started to say the Creed in the darkness. As we arrived at, "He was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead ..." that sole candle came back into the church and to the Table.

Oh, I know a stricter liturgist would leave the church in darkness and silence, but I can't pretend that Good Friday and Easter can be separated that easily. I can never remember one without the other.

EASTER SUNDAY

We cannot celebrate Christ's resurrection too much, but we can make it so much of a show that it resembles Las Vegas more than a quiet garden with an empty tomb. Every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, so I'm growing somewhat suspicious of pulling out all the stops on one Sunday knowing full well we will never hire a brass ensemble for the next Sunday. I hope the special effects don't obliterate the worship—the way a good illustration is sometimes what the listener remembers rather than the point it is trying to illustrate.

Be that as it may, we take that old beat-up cross from Good Friday and wrap some chicken wire around it. As people arrive on Easter morning, they each take a cut flower and place it in the cross. That cross of beauty and new life leads the procession at the opening hymn. After that, throughout Eastertide, the cross is draped with a plain white sheet.

Both the cross and the sheet are removed from the church on Ascension Day. Inevitably someone will ask, "Where is the cross?" "It's in the world," comes the reply. And that always sparks a conversation not only about us being the body of the risen Christ at all the places of all the crosses in our world, but also about not getting too used to stationary symbols in the church. That cross always has more power when it is pounded together on Good Friday than if it were to simply hang there all year and collect dust, becoming just another piece of furniture that we get used to. The cross always needs to shock, to comfort, to inspire, to move us.

I don't preach much at these services; at some I don't preach at all. Instead we try to be the sermon ourselves. I hope this isn't just theater, where we act someone else's lines or play someone else's part. We are not only re-acting the stories of our faith, but we are proclaiming through our actions that God has broken down the barriers that separate us. Neither time nor place can hold us. Because we have died with Christ in a death like his, we can also be raised with him to newness of life. And we do that through our worship. Alleluia!

Timothy Mulder is an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church in America. He is a member of the pastoral staff at St. Bernard's Episcopal Church, Bernardsville, New Jersey.