In New York City I saw a Japanese garden made up of nothing but gravel and a solitary rock. The rock was placed off-center, the ground around it clean of everything, and the gravel raked painstakingly. That garden is a lesson in “less is more.”
We live in a culture of abundance and affluence, and need to be reminded that “the more the better” isn’t always true, especially for worship planning. We’re quick to add our creative innovations to the liturgy, but sometimes it might be just as creative and even more powerful to take away. I can imagine a single voice, without accompaniment, quietly singing “Lord Jesus, Think on Me” being more powerful than a mighty chorus singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” I want to propose that Lent is one of those times when the church does better by doing less, but being no less intentional in what we do.
Understanding the Liturgical Year
The season of Lent is the most familiar liturgical season to Protestants. Although most Calvinists did not observe liturgical seasons as such until after World War II, most Reformed people immediately “got” Lent—they grasped its theological significance as a penitential season. By contrast, our people have little idea that Easter is also a season. Among us Easter is just Easter Sunday, that’s all—and the Sundays that follow are regarded as the Sundays after Easter. Correctly understood, however, Easter is not just a single Sunday; it is a whole season—Eastertide. The seven Sundays that follow Easter are better regarded as the Sundays of Easter. The season ends on Pentecost, which the New Testament writers all regard as the completion of Easter.
The liturgical year is not a necessity for Christians. It’s part of the postbiblical tradition, and that’s one of the reasons why the Calvinistic churches at first rejected it. They saw the medieval liturgical calendar as a threat to our proper appreciation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day. More deeply, the implications of the Reformed doctrine of the ascension make difficult any distinction between “sacred time” and “secular time,” as if the lordship of Christ were removed from culture in general. So while the Reformed churches of Dutch background did not follow the Puritans in rejecting all holidays but Sunday and have always actually mandated the celebration of the “festival days”—Christmas, Epiphany (“Circumcision”), Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost—they did not remove these from the ordinary public year into a separate liturgical year.
For a whole variety of reasons—many of them good—our churches have now begun to adopt the liturgical year, or at least parts of it, as distinct from the secular year. But as we make the sacred calendar part of our heritage, it’s important that we be well-informed and well-disciplined in our use of it. We need to understand how Lent (and the other seasons) is meant to function within the larger calendar, and adapt our observance of it accordingly.
Lent is not meant to be an end in itself. It is only half the story, the first of two things that need to happen together. As the Heidelberg Catechism says in Q&A 88, “What is involved in true repentance or conversion? Two things, the dying-away of the old self and the coming-to-life of the new self.” The season of Lent celebrates the first; the season of Easter is meant to celebrate the second. Celebrating Lent as a season without celebrating Eastertide as a season is like leaving a game at halftime. The game has not yet been won. Without Easter, Lent loses its goal and larger context, and becomes unbalanced.
Easter: Pulling Out the Stops and Putting on the Colors
Learning about the liturgical year by means of Lent is learning it backwards. If there were only one season to introduce, it should be Eastertide rather than Lent, especially for Reformed churches. If not for theological reasons—the absolute priority of the resurrection as the center of our faith—then certainly for biblical reasons, Eastertide deserves a more caring and intentional observance than Lent does. First, Eastertide marks a specific chain of events in Jesus’ life, while Lent doesn’t. Second, Eastertide relates to the liturgical calendar of the Old Testament in a way that Lent doesn’t. The exodus movement from the Passover to Mount Sinai is recapitulated in the Easter movement from the Upper Room to Pentecost. Pentecost is thus regarded both as beginning and completion—the beginning of a new stage of God’s work and the completion of Easter, when the “power of the resurrection” was poured out on all flesh. (It’s certainly not the “birthday of the church”—cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54; Belgic Confession, Art. 27).
The very structure of the Easter season, built as it is around the number seven, is meant to symbolize the sense of “completion” and “holiness.” The word Pentecost signifies fifty days, which is actually forty-nine days plus one. The forty-nine days comes from seven weeks of seven days. The Easter season is a “week of weeks.” More than that, if you were to regard the whole year as a great big week, Eastertide would be the Sunday of that week, since it’s about one-seventh of the year. This being the case, Eastertide is the most important season of the whole church year. (I have argued elsewhere that from a biblical and Reformed perspective, the church year should start on Easter, not on Advent Sunday.) The season is a whole, and each Sunday of the season is regarded as another Easter Sunday. That’s why we call them the Sundays of Easter, not the Sundays after Easter. Eastertide is the season of accomplishment and victory, of fullness and fulfillment, of sanctification and the first fruits. It’s the season when we celebrate the “coming-to-life of the new self.” It’s the season that best celebrates that God is “an overflowing fountain of all good” (Belgic Confession, Art. 1). It’s the season where every Sunday must begin and end with Alleluia. Eastertide is the season to pull out all the stops and put on all the colors and celebrate the endless feast of victory.
In contrast, Lent is preparation, and it’s meant to serve Easter, not stand on its own. Lent is the pasta, not the sauce; it’s the plowed field, not the harvest. It’s the time of incompleteness and emptiness, of silence and sobriety.
Lent: Getting Back to Basics
In our congregation we’re beginning to explore how we can emphasize and celebrate this dynamic of “less” in our worship planning for Lent. This is a new exercise for us: we’re not asking what we can add; we’re asking what we can take away. How can we pare the service down, make it somewhat more austere, use the season of Lent to get back to the bare basics?
What the Heidelberg Catechism calls “the dying-away of the old self” is what the larger tradition refers to as “mortification,” which is symbolized by the discipline of fasting. We will be using fasting as the controlling metaphor for our Lenten liturgical planning. That means we will reduce, strip down, and cut away. We won’t add color; we’ll take it away. We won’t add music and flourishes; we’ll take them away. Instead of adding Lenten litanies, we might give more time for silence. Here is a specific example: Our first hymn is always a processional hymn. The procession is led by a seasonal banner and a processional cross, followed by the acolytes, the choir, and the pastors. Till now we’ve always brought in a Lenten banner. Next year, we’ll have no banner at all. No one will process in either; we will quietly find our seats before the service. (See sidebar for more suggestions for Lenten worship.)
Lent is the season of discipline. Just as an athlete uses discipline to prepare for the race, Lent is a good time to practice liturgical disciplines. In our churches, because we have a deep and historic distrust of liturgy, we sometimes find ourselves not trusting the words of Scripture to speak for themselves. Like talk-show hosts, we add our own words and explanations in order to “make it meaningful.” Lent would be a good time for pastors to memorize the scriptural salutations and benedictions and just say them as written, without adding any “monosodium glutamate,” and without trying to “smile it home.” Discipline for pastors and worship leaders means self-discipline:
- Trust God to speak through Scripture.
- Get the service down to its essentials.
- Try to set a tone of gravity. Not somberness but sobriety, not oppression but reflection, not misery but awareness.
- Be inspired by the spare beauty of the early Puritan churches: clear windows, sharp light, bare wood and brick, simple furniture.
I suspect that if your congregation celebrates this kind of Lent, your usual liturgical practices will be enhanced when you return to them in Eastertide—even if you add nothing extraordinary. As they say in Dutch, “Hunger is the best sauce.”
IDEAS FOR WORSHIP DURING LENT
- Read the Ten Commandments every week of Lent, without variation or comment.
- Use the same prayer of confession—simple, direct, and biblical in its language.
- Have the deacons bring the offering forward in silence, skipping the doxology.
- Make the first hymn a reflective one rather than a doxological hymn of praise.
- Use the children’s message to practice silence, as in the Children and Worship program. (To find out more about this program, call CRC Publications at 1-800-333-8300.)
- Teach the children and let them practice in church the various techniques of quieting themselves for prayer through kneeling (“how we quiet our legs”), clasping hands (“how we quiet our hands”), bowing (“how we quiet our heads”), and closing our eyes (“how we quiet our minds”).
- Let the congregation pray the prayer of confession in silence.
- Lead a responsive psalm in a quiet, slow, reflective way, showing the congregation by example how to do the same, “without expression.” I want to emphasize here that the point of silence is not to deny or weaken the power of the Word, rather to strengthen it and heighten it, since our salvation does not depend on our penitence but on God’s grace, which comes to us through the Word. Indeed, the self-awareness of our penitence comes not from our own self-analysis, but from God’s Word having its way with us.