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Finding Spiritual Renewal in the
Season of Lent
What is “Lent”? Why should Protestants have anything to do with Lent? These are almost exactly the same questions some Christians of the Reformation era, almost 500 years ago, were asking. When Protestants first left the Roman Catholic Church, they looked hard at old traditions in an effort to distinguish between godly practices and meaningless human ritual.
Some Protestants continued to celebrate a church year with holy days, and they breathed new life into good practices and sacred stories that had become empty and meaningless. Others disowned a heritage they considered too corrupt to save, and they turned away from anything they thought might be Roman Catholic. To these reformers, any observance of a “church year” was like idolatry. Evangelicals, by and large, have been among this latter group.
Today, many evangelicals have begun to reexamine the place of holy holidays in the church year. Could the practice of holy seasons, such as Lent and Advent, be a means of spiritual grace to Christians today? If so, how can evangelicals go about observing Lent in a meaningful way?
Essentials of Observing Lent
Lent is a period of just over six weeks each year, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending at midnight on the Saturday before Easter. During these weeks, Christians use various disciplines to think seriously about the great love of Christ and to seek to walk with Him through His passion. In this way, Christians hope to better appreciate the triumph of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday services. Some churches mark this beginning with the “imposition of ashes.” The pastor marks a tiny black cross of ashes on the foreheads of those who participate. The words the pastor says as this is done remind the participants of their own mortality: “We are dust!” Most churches save the palm fronds from Palm Sunday each year and burn them, to make the ash. This is applied with a drop of oil.
One of the things we have to do in order to begin to celebrate Lent meaningfully is to establish what we hope to accomplish. We may ask, “Isn’t Lent about giving up something?” Self-denial is certainly an important aspect of Lent, but there is no virtue in merely seeking to be uncomfortable for its own sake. Instead, self-denial is an opportunity to replace routine with something that will help us grow closer to God, something that will be a daily reminder of our dependence on God.
Observing Lent meaningfully on a personal level will be different for every person. It might be the quiet decision to lay aside the usual hectic schedule for a period of time to become more available to God. Thus, giving up the internet or some other form of entertainment, for instance, opens up time to be alone with God. Others will fast in order to devote the cost of the meals to a ministry project God has laid on their hearts.
Observing Lent may also be a well-planned, churchwide effort to be in line for spiritual refreshment. Lent can be a catalyst for renewal as effective as a revival meeting when a significant portion of the congregation makes it a time of spiritual seeking. In order to aid the members of the congregation in this, each year, the local church might focus on a different aspect of discipleship.
The last eight days of Lent, beginning with Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, deserve the best planning and preparation of the entire year. Churches that deliberately observe Holy Week as a climax and culmination of Lent often experience a sense of God’s presence in almost surprising ways. It is not a coincidence that almost a third of each of the four Gospels deals with just the last eight days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, including His passion, death, and resurrection.
Thursday is the night Jesus prepared the final Passover with His disciples, and transformed it into the sacrament we call the Lord’s Supper. In Holy Week, Thursday is called “Maundy Thursday,” because of the new commandment Jesus gave to His disciples (Maundy is from the Latin word for command). “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Many churches hold a “Last Supper” celebration on Thursday evening.
Additionally, on Wednesday evening, some churches hold a Seder meal, the traditional Jewish Passover meal, to reenact the Last Supper. The elements of the typical Passover meal are given in a Passover celebration, with a fellowship meal as part of the celebration. The service on Thursday night may also encompass Communion, or it may be a more traditional service emphasizing the gospel readings for that night.
The "Last Supper" celebration is followed by a Tenebrae (“darkness”) service, or "Service of Shadows," on Good Friday. In the Tenebrae service, candles are extinguished one by one and houselights are progressively dimmed as the passion narratives are read, tracing Jesus' pathway to the cross. In most Tenebrae services, the last candle to be extinguished leaves the sanctuary dark except for exit lighting. This final candle is the Christ candle, signifying Jesus’ last moments on the Cross: “It is finished!” Sometimes, the drama calls for the candle to be carried out of the sanctuary without being extinguished.
Yet, there is a deliberate unfinish to the service. The congregation has been instructed to leave in absolute silence. In my experience, they have often left in tears as well. They will not return until Sunday morning, when the rest of the story is finally told.
Ashes to Fire
The beauty of observing the various seasons of the church year is that they tell the old, old story in a continually unfolding, building drama. The high triumph of Easter is not the end of the story. Make Easter evening, or the following Sunday, a time when we traditionally walk again with the brokenhearted pair along the road to Emmaus, only to have our hearts strangely warmed by the risen Lord. Another 50 days after this leads to yet another climax, Pentecost!
Following the journey of Jesus through the celebration of the seasons of the church year helps us to live anew the story of our faith, bringing hope to our hearts and revival to our spirits.
RUSSELL METCALFE is a retired elder in the Church of the Nazarene. This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Illustrated Bible Life.
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