I grew up thinking the four major days of the church year were Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. They were certainly the days that seem to receive the most excitement and specialness. Since my childhood, I have been exposed to and studied so many different traditions of worship, and find that we often fall short of the wonderful experiences we can have in worship because we have eliminated much of the traditional church calendar. By this I mean, in our effort to move away from some of the excesses of some brands of Christianity, we have thrown out the baby with the bath water (another expression I learned when growing up!)
Wednesday of this week was Ash Wednesday; it marked the beginning of the season of Lent. The 40-day Lenten period is marked by a time of prayer and preparation to celebrate Easter. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent, and are referred to as the Sundays in Lent. The number 40 is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for His ministry by facing the temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling. Christians today use the Lenten season for introspection, self examination, and repentance.
Lent culminates with Holy Week, beginning the Sunday before Easter and going up to Easter Sunday. The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday and generally celebrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Thursday is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday and remembers the last supper. Good Friday is the day that we commemorate Christ’s death on the cross. Finally, Easter Sunday is a great day of celebrating the resurrection.
Lent has traditionally been marked by penitential prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Some churches today still observe a rigid schedule of fasting on certain days during Lent, especially the giving up of meat, sweets, and other types of food. I often give up something during Lent. For instance, some years I have given up all soft drinks and sweet tea–only to drink water (I have a hard time without my sweet tea!). What I have discovered is that every time I crave tea or a soft drink, I think about the reason I am giving up this beverage and focus on the suffering and death of Jesus. It is amazing how much this helps me get in focus and prepare for Easter. Other traditions do not place as great an emphasis on fasting, but focus on charitable deeds, especially helping those in physical need with food and clothing, or simply the giving of money to charities. Most Christian churches that observe Lent at all focus on it as a time of prayer, especially penance, repenting for failures and sin as a way to focus on the need for God’s grace. It is really a preparation to celebrate God’s marvelous redemption at Easter, and the resurrected life that we live, and hope for, as Christians.
In my opinion, unless we truly experience Lent, Easter is not nearly as great a celebration, but for many who have never been exposed to the “real” church calendar, the idea may seem somewhat foreign.
Here are some simple ways to help your church experience Lent. Perhaps, if this is your first year doing so, you will select just one or two things. Some ideas you may keep in your plans for next year.
- Prepare a 40-day (or 46-day) Lenten devotional or even a Holy Week (8-day) devotional for the entire congregation to share. You can assign various members of the body to write the devotionals to make it more personal for your church.
- Encourage your congregation to go through a daily Bible reading plan for Lent such as this or this.
- Plan an Ash Wednesday service. (more on this in the near future)
- Write Lenten devotionals in your weekly bulletin or newsletter.
- Plan all your Sunday worship services to have a Lenten focus. Perhaps choose a song that will tie the time together each week, such as Lead Me to the Cross.
- Plan special Holy Week services (more on this next week)
- Display various types of art with a Lenten emphasis around the church. Find excellent art for your bulletin or screens in worship.
- Distribute nails or small crosses to each person to keep with them throughout Lent as a reminder of the season.
- Encourage families to observe Lent at home. There are numerous resources on the web to give you ideas. Here’s one.
Hopefully, this will get your creativity flowing. Next week, I will talk more about special Holy Week services. Take a look.
What are some meaningful things your church has done for Lent?