Holy Lent, Earthly Lent: Worshiping in Season
By Joseph Bush
[Note: The liturgy in this document is from Worshiping in Season: Ecology and Christ Through the Liturgical Year, by Joseph Bush (Alban Books, 2022)].
When we celebrate our salvation in Christ, we do so as human creatures within an earthly creation. How then do we see the natural world of God’s creation participating in this salvation celebrated in Christ? We see it throughout! As the old hymn sounds, "all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres,"[i] our Advent expectation is for God’s Messiah to grace Earth. Our Christmas proclamation is of Christ’s very incarnation. Epiphany reveals God’s glory in Christ as an earthly reality. Holy Week deepens the mystery. Maundy Thursday reveals Christ’s sacred presence in mundane elements of bread and fruit. Good Friday submerges our Savior into our mortal depths, and we find Christ entombed within this Earth that give us birth. Easter is the resurrection and resilience of life itself along with life’s Author. Ascension affirms Christ’s abiding presence to “fill all things.” Pentecost celebrates God’s Spirit among us now, which blew across primordial chaos at creation’s outset—and which we identify Christologically with Sophia and Logos—through whom all things were made. Our very breath—all breath--is Christ’s!
Lent begins with this same voice from creation speaking of our journey with Christ and Christ’s journey with us. Ash Wednesday invites us both to affirm our mortal nature as dust of the Earth and to turn toward a holy lifestyle that might include care within creation. On the first Sunday in Lent, we face temptation with Jesus in the wilderness where he was “with the wild beasts” (Mk 1:13) and where he renounced power as domination over nature and nations, over angels, rocks and kingdoms. Instead, his earthly journey leads to the cross—and through the cross to the ultimate exaltation of life. On the way, as he enters Jerusalem on Palm/Passion Sunday, shouts of “Hosanna” resonate with earlier pleas from Jewish worship for the land’s productivity and rain’s refreshment. The story of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountaintop, read sometimes on the second Sunday of Lent and sometimes on the Sunday before Lent, prefigures Christ’s journey to the cross and to glory, and it prefigures all creation’s transfiguration and glorification with Christ. New creation beckons.
Worshiping in Season; Ecology and Christ Through the Liturgical Year moves us with the Earth through all these moments in the life of Christ, informing our worship during these liturgical seasons. It provides commentary on biblical texts within and beyond the lectionary readings for these special occasions, and each chapter gives examples of practical liturgical resources that might be used in actual moments of worship. Here is a sampling for early Lent that might, we pray, promote blessing within your congregation for our earthly sojourn this Lent: a Eucharistic Prayer for Transfiguration, a Prayer of Confession for the First Sunday of Lent, and a Blessing with the Palms on Palm/Passion Sunday.
EUCHARISTIC PRAYER FOR TRANSFIGURATION[ii]
. . . It is right and a matter of justice to give you thanks and praise, Almighty God.[iii]
Dwelling in light unapproachable, you emblaze the sky with heavenly bodies. You brighten the whole earth and spark iridescence in the sea. Out of the darkness you created light, and the light continues to enliven us. From your light and energy, all plants and animals receive their life.
When our life was nearly extinguished by the flood, you rescued your creatures along with Noah, and you lit a spectrum of light in the sky as a sign of peace for the earth and a promise of life for all animals.
Through the ages, you have called us to walk in the light, and you have sent prophets to illumine the way. When you freed your people from slavery in Egypt, you accompanied them in a fiery pillar. And when you gave them your words through Moses, you made his face to shine with the luminance of your own glory.
When the people forsook your covenant and went after other gods, you responded to Elijah's prayer with your own fire to ignite his offering and then with rains to water the earth, letting it be known and shown that you alone are God.
We therefore praise you with voices in heaven and on Earth throughout creation: (Sanctus)
In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus, your Beloved, to be the light of the world. We beheld Christ’s glory, glory as of your only Begotten. Before being lifted on the cross, rising, and ascending to reign, we saw Jesus transfigured before us on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, dazzling with your radiance, and presenting the promise of transfiguration for us and for your creation. With the heavenly voice, we proclaim Jesus your Beloved.
Christ crucified, the sun was dimmed over the land.
Christ risen, the tomb held a sight of dazzling light.
Christ ascended, we look for the fullness of your glory on Earth.
When the time had come for Christ to be glorified, at supper with the disciples, Jesus took bread, and gave thanks to you, broke the bread, and gave it to them saying: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Christ, after dying and rising from the dead, was revealed on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread, and on the road to Damascus in blinding light. Having ascended, Christ continues to be revealed, enlivening all creation and enlightening the eyes of faith.
And so, in remembrance of these your generative acts, we present ourselves with these earthly elements, in praise and thanksgiving, in union with Christ's offering for us.
Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these your creatures of bread and wine. As we receive them, make us to be partakers of Christ’s body and blood, and nurture us to grow into Christ’s likeness. Grant that we may be for the world the body of Christ and that we may bear witness to your sanctifying presence on Earth. By your Spirit make us one with you, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, seeking the healing and restoration of creation, until finally we feast in a new city eternally lit by your own radiant glory and where the Lamb is the light.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION ON THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT[iv]
O Lord our God,
You alone are Sovereign over nature and nations,
over all heavenly forces and earthly powers.
We confess that too often we seek security in our own means and schemes
rather than in your magnificent goodness and amazing grace.
We are tempted to think that our own righteousness can court heavenly favor,
that our provisional justice is sufficient to ensure earthly security, or
that our hard work alone guarantees prosperity and flourishing.
We forget that you alone are the source
of Earth’s bounty,
of earthly security, and
of heavenly blessing.
Forgive us, and help us in our life and work to trust more fully in you—
for our daily bread, our earthly welfare, and our eternal salvation.
In the name of Christ our Savior, we pray. Amen.
BLESSING WITH THE PALMS ON PALM SUNDAY[v]
Call to Worship: Psalm 118: [19-20] 24-27 (This psalm can be read or sung responsively,[vi] or it can be read or sung as a litany with interjected responses of “Hosanna!” or with verse 25 read as a response: “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!”)
Collect (based on Philippians 2:5-11):
Christ our Sovereign, honored this day as centuries ago with festal branches:
receive us with you in your entry to Jerusalem and on your journey to the cross,
that witnessing both your humility in death and your exaltation in glory,
our acclamation this day might be joined with every tongue confessing and every knee bending “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” that you indeed are Sovereign; to the glory of God. Amen.
Distribution of the palms to worshipers (may occur here or following the thanksgiving over the palms below or earlier as people gather)
Thanksgiving over the Palms:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe!
When you created the Earth, you planted it and watered it, making this a habitable place. You made animals and humanity out of the same elements of soil from which plants grow.
Season after season, through innumerable years, you continue to send rains to water the earth, bringing productivity to wilderness and to pasture and to cultivated fields. By your provision, we are fed, and by your grace, we are nurtured in body and spirit.
When your people were oppressed in Egypt, you liberated them with signs of your power throughout creation. You sustained them in the wilderness, giving them food to eat and water to drink, and led them to a land flowing with milk and honey. You commanded annual observances commemorating your gracious acts. You told them: “take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God.”[vii] Each year your acts of salvation are celebrated, as we do now on this day, chanting “Hosanna” with those who have come before:
Hosanna! “Save us we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success![viii]
When tyrants invaded to colonize and oppress, “hosanna” has continued to be your people’s prayer, that you would send a liberator to establish your own reign of justice among us. We remember how Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem with such a hope on the lips and in the hearts of the people. With them, we welcome him this day, waving branches and chanting:
Hosanna! “Save us we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.[ix]
Bless our worship this day as we process with prayer and praise, with palms and psalms. Bless the branches we wave, that these plants might place us with Christ as his parade proceeds toward his passion. Hosanna!
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.[x]
Distribution of the palms if this has not already occurred.
Gospel Lesson: John 12:12-16 (or Synoptic parallels)
Procession with songs of Hosanna!
Maltbie D. Babcock, “This is My Father’s World.” Public domain. (United Methodist Hymnal, 144)
[ii] Joseph Bush, Worshiping in Season: Ecology and Christ Through the Liturgical Year (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022), 12-13.
[iii] Walter J. Burghardt, S.J. translates justum est as “matter of justice,” in "Worship and Justice Reunited," Liturgy and Justice, edited by Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002), 39.
[iv] Composed after conversation with Worship Matters team on 7 Feb. 2023 about Worshiping in Season, 33-34, recorded in Podcast on Worshiping in Season.
[v] Worshiping in Season, 54-55.
[vi] See e.g. #232 in The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990).
[vii] Leviticus 23:40
[viii] Psalm 118:25
[ix] Psalm 118:25-26a
[x] Psalm 118:26a
Joseph Bush is Professor Emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is now serving as a United Methodist minister in Evergreen, Alabama, on loan from the Minnesota Annual Conference to Alabama/West Florida. He has taught congregational ministry in theological programs around the world: in his native New Jersey at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, in Fiji at the ecumenical Pacific Theological College, in New Zealand at the Presbyterian School of Ministry, in Minnesota at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and in his alma mater at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He was also Coordinator for the Washington Theological Consortium’s Certificate in Ecology and Theology. His first book, Gentle Shepherding, was named one of the top ten for the year in which it was published by the Academy of Parish Clergy. In addition, Worshiping in Season: Ecology and Christ Through the Liturgical Year, his third book, was named one of the top five reference books of 2022 by the Academy of Parish Clergy. You can find out more about Dr. Bush and his writings at https://www.gentleshepherding.com/works.htm.