by Dr. Gregory J. Wismar
What is the holiest season of the Church Year?
Perhaps that seems an inappropriate question. After all, each season in the annual cycle we observe has its distinct spiritual character. There is the anticipation of Advent, the glorious rejoicing of Christmas, the exuberant triumph of Easter, and the resounding power of Pentecost. But what season invites us more than any other to a repentant reflecting, to a changing of the patterns of our lives, to a new dimension of devotion? That season is Lent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter Day.
Each year on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the liturgy of the Church calls us to begin “a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection,” when “our attention is especially directed to the holy sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The words used in the Ash Wednesday rite of the Lutheran Service Book Agenda also remind us that “from ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.”
Each of the seasons of the church year is observed and celebrated, but Lent, and only Lent, is “kept.” The holy season of Lent invites us to be “keepers”—the people of God who keep the fast, keep the silence, and keep the focus throughout this singular season.
‘Keeping the Fast’
The custom of keeping the fast in Lent has been part of the holy observance of the season from its very beginnings. The biblical precedent for this custom is reflected in the very first hymn in the “Lent” section of Lutheran Service Book (LSB). The hymn writer, Claudia Hernaman, starts with a reference to the time of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. She begins: “O Lord, throughout these forty days You prayed and kept the fast” (LSB 418, LW 92). In the final stanza of the hymn, however, she makes a thoughtful transition; she writes: “Be with us through this season, Lord.”
What Hernaman skillfully does is link the 40 days of Lent with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness in prayer and fasting, with the inference that for those who would follow Jesus, Lent is a parallel experience.
The idea of the special nature of the 40 days is reflected in the English word quarantine, which has come to connote a time of separation from, and special attention to, the daily sequence of activity for the restoration of health and well-being. For Christians in previous centuries, the quarantine of the 40 days of Lent included going without regular meals for a period of time. That custom is still observed in various parts of Christendom today.
Fasting may be observed on one or more specific days of the week, often Tuesday and Friday, when food is limited to one meal each day. In the Middle Ages, the time for that one meal was set at None (sounds like “known”), the ninth hour of the Roman day—three o’clock in the afternoon. Over the course of time, this single daily meal was moved to earlier in the day, but its “time name” remained—and became the word noon in our common English usage.
In the early church, people fasted for different lengths of time and abstained from various foods. In a 604 letter to Bishop Augustine of Canterbury, St. Gregory the Great (commemorated on Sept. 3 in LSB) wrote: “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”
In its observance, however, the style of fasting was never to eclipse the purpose of fasting: a spiritual discipline with a positive purpose. Already in 461, Leo, the bishop of Rome, had written: “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.” In the Small Catechism and elsewhere, Martin Luther commends the practice of fasting as “fine outward training.”
In our day and age, some popular health experts promote the medicinal value of occasional fasting. For Christians, however, to keep the fast is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness, finding blessing and spiritual benefit in purposeful self-denial during Lent.
‘Keeping the Silence’
Another spiritual dynamic of Lent is that it is a time to keep the silence in reflection and devotion. The language of Lent is purposefully quieted. The word alleluia is not used as an expression of praise in Lent. Our vocal and instrumental music is reflective and subdued. Purple, the liturgical color customarily appointed for Lent, is the “quietest” of the colors used throughout the church year and is associated with penitence and sorrow.
In many churches, the crosses, crucifixes, and other religious artwork is “veiled”—covered with a transparent cloth throughout the 40 days to mute their brilliance and to add a solemn tone to the worship space. In some places, families also cover religious paintings and wall hangings in their homes.
Times of silence for personal reflection and prayer before individual or family devotions have special meaning in Lent. The words of one of the great Lutheran hymns of Lent serve as a call to an extra measure of devotion and prayer: “Jesus, I will ponder now / On Your holy Passion; / With Your Spirit me endow / For such meditation” (LSB 440, LW 109, TLH 140).
Today, establishing a proper setting for such reflection in our fast-paced and noisy world may take extra determination. Finding that place and observing that time, however, is another central component of the discipline of the holy season of Lent and is more than worth the effort.
Although much devotional material for the Lenten season exists, one of the best—and readily available— sources of such material is the corpus of Lenten hymns in Lutheran hymnals. Each hymn contains meaningful sacred lyrics from across the history of Christian poetic expression—ready to be rediscovered and taken to heart again and again, whether as part of keeping the silence or in concert with others.
(Being released later this year is the Concordance to Lutheran Service Book, a valuable reference tool for locating words and phrases in hymns that can further meditation and reflection. Concordances for our previous hymnals already are available for devotional and instructional use. Visit CPH.org for more information about these resources.)
‘Keeping the Focus’
The days and weeks of Lent call us to keep the focus of our lives of faith on Jesus, our Lord, and to learn more of Him and His loving plan of salvation for us. One of the classic hymn stanzas of the Lutheran church portrays that proper focus in this petition to the Lord:
On my heart imprint Your image,
Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation!
—LSB 422, LW 100, TLH 179
In the early centuries of the Church, the season before Easter was used to teach the faith to people who desired to convert to Christianity and asked to be baptized. The process of catechesis included a time when the candidates for Baptism were questioned about their understanding of what they had been taught regarding the basics of the faith.
In Latin, this sequence of inquiries was called scrutinia, from which our English word “scrutiny” is derived. At certain times during Lent, the greatest treasures of the faith were shared with the candidates for Baptism, including the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel account of the suffering and death of Jesus to pay the penalty for the sins of all mankind was told simply and directly as being of the greatest importance, as it still is.
The observance of a holy Lent has a sacred purpose and can be of great benefit. As we keep the fast, keep the silence, and keep the focus of Lent, it becomes a fuller and more meaningful season. The LSB Ash Wednesday order shares an appropriate prayer for all of us:
Let us pray that our dear Father in heaven, for the sake of His beloved Son and in the power of His Holy Spirit, might richly bless this Lententide for us so that we may come to Easter with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth.
For More Information
Discovering more about the church year can be an enlightening and meaningful experience. For more about the history and structure of the church year, the significance of liturgical colors, and related matters, visit http://worship.lcms.org/churchyear. —G.W.