The Spiritual Discipline Of Lent

Themes: Christian Year, Lent, Scholar

The following article describes the Lenten spiritual journey and suggests practical means for personal and corporate renewal.

Nearly everyone knows the clichés concerning Lent: we are to “give up” something as a kind of obscure penance. Protestants of a more austere piety have made much of the need for a season of self-denial as a test of pious discipline. Whereas Roman Catholics undergo (or used to undergo) a Lenten period of obligatory abstinence, Protestants of a more Reformed sensibility have focused upon moral introspection, perhaps with fewer chocolates. Such practices are not without merit, especially for those of us in economic conditions of abundance. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, however, call for something else.

Rather than a season for giving up something, let us consider Lent a season of taking on something. At the very heart of the Christian faith is our common participation in the life, suffering, death, resurrection, and Spirit-giving of Jesus Christ. Such participation is sometimes referred to as sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ. St. Paul exclaims, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7–8). The church is thus called to remember and live out in communal form this graced power of new life. In speaking of the paschal mystery we refer to an inexhaustibly rich set of meanings. Lent points us toward the narrative of passion-death-resurrection, celebrated in the three days which climax Holy Week and, hence, the whole season. At the same time the paschal mystery is encountered each Lord’s day in Word and the Supper. Furthermore, the paschal mystery also refers to our continuing experience of living in the presence of the Lord in daily use of the means of grace: prayer, the reading and meditating on Scripture, fasting as well as works of mercy. To such the journey of Lent invites us afresh every year.

Let us say, then, that Lent is a double journey—a journey together (and alone) toward the mystery of God’s redemptive embrace in the death and resurrection of Christ. At the same time, it is a journey into the depths of our humanity. Without a shared, living memory of who Jesus Christ was, there would be no faith community with a distinctive Christian identity. Without a living encounter over time with who Christ is in our midst, there would be no unfolding of Christian life and ministry. The double journey of Lent, then, is a baptismal journey.

Historically considered, Lent developed as a season of preparation and formation for initiation into the church at Easter. The forty days of preparation involved the whole church, not only those preparing to be baptized. The journey of discipline, prayer, and instruction, which was known in the early church as the “catechumenate,” provided those already baptized with a yearly reentry into the meaning and deepening range of commitment entailed by baptism. This was also a period when any people who had lapsed from the church could be reconciled and restored to fellowship. Ash Wednesday emerged in early medieval times as a day of penitence to mark the beginning of Lent’s forty days (excluding the Sundays) of preparation for the paschal celebration at Easter, beginning with Maundy Thursday evening through Sunday morning. The great theme of Ash Wednesday is “return to the Lord.” This day emphasizes our mortality and humanity. It is time for putting aside the sins and failures of the past in order to journey toward who we are yet to become by the grace of Christ in baptism.

In our own time nearly every major Christian tradition has begun to recover the significance of Lent as a time of common preparation and mutuality. The practical suggestions which follow are all rooted in the hope of this recovery for the entire local congregation: how to best “take on” forms of devotion and common life which flow from and prepare for the realities made present at Easter.

Searching the Scriptures Together

Lent provides an especially appropriate time for common Bible study, especially if this is directly related to the texts that will be read, sung, and proclaimed in the Sunday assembly. For those congregations using the Common Lectionary, this may take the form of reading the texts through the week, at table as families or in specific study or prayer gatherings, or in the context of simple common meals as a congregation on a week night. Each of the three yearly cycles permits a different gospel focus. So, for example, in Year A, we may journey from the temptations following Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 4:1–11) through Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well through Matthew’s account of the Passion on Palm Sunday. Such a common biblical study, enriched greatly if all three readings and the Psalm appointed for each Sunday are touched upon, will take us into the central images (water, rebirth, the raising of Lazarus, and so on) as well as the implications of being baptized into Christ. A careful study of each year’s sequence of Sunday lections will also prepare the congregation to hear the sermon and to participate more fully in the readings, the Psalter, and the hymns, if well chosen. On the basis of such a common discipline, each person will be drawn more deeply into the possibility of personal reflection in solitude.

The Lenten practice of searching the Scriptures could follow the classical pattern of reading-reflection-(meditation)-prayer, undertaken both as a group and in solitude. We need both time together and time alone in reading and prayer. This movement through the biblical accounts, which enable us to journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem in light of the whole witness of Scripture, will deepen the range of prayer, both liturgical and devotional. Moreover, such study should sharpen our appreciation of what the Lord’s Supper signifies as well as increase awareness of the biblical content of the hymns we sing during the Lent and its culmination in Holy Week and Easter.

Prayer and Fasting

Many persons in our society find it immensely helpful for personal discipline to have a season intentionally dedicated to “simplify” the way they live. So Lent can indeed be a significant period in learning to eat in less costly and indulgent ways. But merely giving up food in the name of self-improvement is hardly the essential motivation here. Rather, the point is to learn the connections between learning to live more simply for the sake of solidarity with the poor as well as for the sake of uncluttering our senses. We might then take on the discipline of relating prayer and restraint to our need to wait upon God. The image of the desert way is one of the classical expressions of the Lenten journey—clearly derived from the way of Jesus in the desert. Only by intentionally entering the desert way can we be kept from idolatry and perhaps from spiritual self-indulgence.

Each congregation might hold a series of simple common meals of soup and bread which can be marked by readings, simple prayers, and the giving of money (perhaps the equivalent of the normal cost of a meal) to a designated ministry. In some cases these meals might take the form of a simple “love-feast” consisting of hymn singing, shared experiences of faith, and intercessory prayer in the context of rolls and tea or other appropriate simple foods. Such meals could be held in a fellowship hall or with smaller groupings of families in individual homes. The rhythm of such a common discipline at table and with specifically focused common prayer has been, in my own experience, very powerful in forming an awareness appropriate to the essential baptized life.

Many congregations also produce Lenten booklets of prayer and meditations written by members of the congregation. This can provide a remarkable opening for shared spiritual experience as well as for sensing the range of gifts in the community. Such prayers and meditations may focus on the central images of Lent—from the ashes of repentance and mortality through the desert way to the unforgettable images of Holy Week itself: the Upper Room, a kiss of betrayal, words of denial, prayers of agony, sleeping friends, the arrest and trial, Pilate’s question, the procession to Golgotha, on through the Crucifixion.

The way of prayer is also a way of discipline. Fasting, almsgiving, and solidarity with all who hunger and thirst are the esssence of Lent. These are means of confronting both the mystery of God and Christ and the human struggle within us against spiritual self-deception. This is precisely what the ancient church emphasized in its catechumenate each year early in preparation for Easter. Our point is not, however, to “play early church.” Rather, the journey of Lent is to deepen our participation in Christ by following him in disciplines of the soul and body.

The disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and fasting, and the practice of simple “sacrificial meals” or love feasts together are already related to the Lord’s Day. But it is especially important to note that the Sundays in Lent are themselves both receiving and shaping occasions for the Lenten experience of the people. Those persons responsible for planning ought to pay particular attention to the environment of the sanctuary and the other gathering places for the congregation. Appropriate art work—from weaving to photography—can create an environment that portrays the Lenten journey itself. I have been especially impressed with the creation of “prayer images” created by painting or by photographs that lead us to contemplate a particular baptismal symbol—water in all its moods and ranges, for example. We can invite a prayerful consideration of solidarity with the poor by a careful display of images in our gathering places. It is quite possible to create a litany of images which could be used in worship, whether brought in by children or by appropriately restrained dance movements.

Crucial to the whole environment is simplicity and sobriety without sullen or heavy effects. The music selected, the textures of vestments or paraments or banners, the use of storytelling and, above all, the prayer forms used in common worship, should reflect the Lenten journey. At base we are to bear in mind that this journey is one of deepening conversion to the central mystery of God’s self-giving in Christ.

Worship planning may itself be a spiritual discipline for those called to participation. The pastor cannot and should not do everything required. Therefore, Lent also provides a particularly appropriate season for training the laity for various responsibilities in worship: reading, leading prayer, musical offerings, and serving. It is especially effective if the team of persons who will be assisting to plan and lead the Holy Week and Easter services could find special time for a planning retreat in the first week of Lent. Their own planning, as any conscientious choir already knows, will itself deepen their ownership. More important, it will deepen their participation in the rhythm of the Lenten journey toward Easter.

Theology of Lent in Practice

Essential to living through the double journey of Lent is an understanding of the unfolding meaning of the church as a baptized community. This requires a more intentional process of prayer, searching the Scriptures, and sharing questions and problems of faith and life and of new disciplines oriented to the simplification of our lifestyles (as individuals, household units, and as congregations). Thus, the Sundays of Lent ought to be receiving points for the renewal of discipleship.

For all the intensity of Lent we seek in our time and society a whole new pace. Church activities during Lent should not exhaust us with mere busyness, especially if it is guilt-induced. My point here is not to sprint through Lent in a series of events, classes, liturgical services, and devotional self-preoccupation, only to collapse on Easter Sunday. No, the point of these suggestions is to give us an understanding from the “inside out,” so to speak. The prayer and discipline of Lent should sustain and refresh us so that we may give full expression to the reality of having been baptized in Christ. In this way, those who seek baptism or its renewal in confirmation will be supported by the whole congregation’s eager yearning for reaffirmation and renewal of the baptismal covenant. Lent serves the glory and the saving faith born at Easter. Thus, it invites the possibility of a new approach to exploring with the whole of the congregation what it means to belong to one another in Christ. The rhythms and the profound contrasts awakened in us by the Lenten Scriptures and by the journey toward Jerusalem with its paradox of death and resurrection are, we shall find, absolutely essential to living faith as the people of God.

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