"I always thought that Lent was a time of remembering the cross and Jesus' death," Carlotta said. "We used to sing hymns like 'In the Cross I Glory' and 'O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.'" "That fits the mood of Holy Week," said Marian, "but there are other dimensions to Lent, such as preparing for Easter and getting those who are to be baptized ready for their big moment of grace!"
Marian had come to meet with the choir to discuss the hymns and tone of worship for the coming Sundays of Lent. "What about midweek soup suppers and special speakers?" asked Don, the choir director, who had been on staff for fifteen years. "Yeah, we always have enrichment times — talks on prayer, guest missionaries, a series of reflections on the disciples and their fickleness — stuff like that for Lent Wednesdays," another choir member blurted out.
What is the purpose of Lent? What kind of focus does it call for? Is Marian on target when she says that it is a time of getting ready for Easter? What does getting ready for Easter mean? Who decides?
Well those are good questions. The United Methodist Book of Worship crisply describes the period this way:
The season is a preparation for celebrating Easter. Historically, Lent began as a period of fasting and preparation for baptism by converts and then became a time of penance by all Christians. (UMBOW, 320)
Confused? No wonder Carlotta and Don and others express confusion about the tone of Lenten observance. Is it penitance or celebration?
The Book of Worship goes on to make clear that the First Sunday of Lent, which focuses on the Temptation of Jesus, and the Sixth Sunday (Passion/Palm Sunday), which focuses on Christ's triumphal entry and his subsequent crucifixion and death, are only two Sundays with a penitential and somber tone. The rest, guided by the lectionary, focus on other aspects of the meaning of Christ for our lives. And since all the Sundays of Lent are little Easters, the penitential spirit of Lent "should be tempered with joyful expectation of the Resurrection" (UMBOW, 320).
So Lent is preparatory. Easter is coming. The baptismal waters wait.
All this implies a journey toward ... some one, some transformation, some powerful moment or moments of grace, some realization of the risen Christ in the corporate life of the congregation.
"Remember your baptism and be thankful" is the imperative of the baptismal ritual. After the candidates are baptized, all in the congregation are to recall their initiation into a lifelong journey of grace. So here are the questions: "How did you come to the waters? And where has the Spirit taken you since that day? What events, decisions, and experiences of transformation have shaped you along the way?" "Remember!" as the water splashes back into the font. What might remembering our journey do by way of evoking thankful praise of God and solidifying a sense of who and whose we are as we come to Easter this year?
What could your congregation do to invite, encourage, and support one another in such remembering during the days of Lent?
Here are some ideas to start your own prayerful decision making for how to observe Lent in your congregation:
1. Tell stories of spiritual journey. Preach imaginatively the lectionary texts, focusing on the story of the people you meet there or the story that one or more of the lectionary texts teases out of us (for example, Abraham's mystical experience of the "terrifying darkness" (second Sunday, Year C) or the woman at the well (third Sunday, Year A). Actually, you could use Year A in any year, especially if you have people being prepared for baptism; and you could tell the stories of Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and (the raising of) Lazarus.
2. Celebrate new beginnings on the first Sunday of Lent. Maybe there are youth and adults in the congregation who are ready to begin a new and intentional beginning. Use "A Celebration of New Beginnings" (UMBOW 588-590) as an opening for these people to step forward and be supported.
3. Form groups for mutual storytelling during the Lenten period. Find ways to let the Sunday preaching be the springboard and focus for group sharing. This would appeal to the more extroverted in the community. For more suggestions about these groups, seeCome to the Waters, pages 90-91.
4. Invite people to journal during Lent. Provocative questions related to the sermons could be posted on the church's website and/or included in the bulletin. This would appeal to the more introverted folks in the congregation. The book Freedom Writers, or the film of the same titlebased on it, may offer some contemporary and robust images of journaling toward transformation.
5. Focus on encounter with Christ during Lent. Host one or more Sunday morning or weekday sessions for "Discovery of Faith Journey." Here the resource and tool could be the new "Record of Faith Journey" resource that is a part of our more dynamic United Methodist membership record system. You could use a PowerPoint presentation, "Record of Faith Journey: Venture in Discovery," and a related session guideas tools for leading these sessions. Suggestions 1, 2, 3 and 4 above would prime the pump for the people to be ready to see their lives in terms of the means of grace and their life in the congregation. Even people who are not currently baptized or professing members might begin to see themselves in the process of a graceful journey.
6. Enter into the mystery of dying and rising with Christ: Plan for a rich celebration of Holy Week and the Great Three Days (the evening of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter). See UMBOW, 351-367.
7. Plan for holding an Easter Vigil after sunset on the eve of Easter or starting before sunrise on Easter day. See UMBOW, 369-376, or Fiesta Cristiana, pages 163-168. Warning! The vigil is dramatic and "dangerous" liturgy! It could change the lives of seekers, including pastors and musicians. If you and your congregation have never kept the Easter Vigil, plan to attend an Easter Vigil at a neighboring church. Maybe you can share baptism of candidates from both churches! This is a night for storytelling and for making stories of a lifetime.
For suggestions for continuing this journey through the Great Fifty Days (the weeks of Easter) and climaxing it at Pentecost, see Come to the Waters, pages 94-95.
Question: What is the purpose of Lent?
Answer: Storytelling while you (plural) stand in the baptismal font!
(If your font is too small, get a bigger one — at least in your imagination!)