Lent is popularly known as a season for individual self-examination, penitence, and “giving something up” as a spiritual discipline. It seems to be primarily inwardly and negatively focused. It’s commonly seen as being about what’s wrong with me as an individual and what I’m willing to do to improve myself.
While self-examination and some individual work are part of the work of Lent, the early church developed Lent to be primarily “other-focused.” Lent was created as the final leg of intense preparation and support for people who had chosen to learn to live the way of Jesus. It was, we might say, a kind of finishing school for those preparing for baptism and lifelong Christian discipleship.
The church in the West had begun to drift from such a clear formational focus for this season by the Middle Ages. From that point forward, essentially until Vatican II, Lent in the Western Church, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Anglican, had taken on a more “generically penitential” hue. The still-popular impression of Lent as an extended season of “navel-gazing,” self-deprivation, and generally feeling bad about oneself was not all that far off-track from what Lent had become in practice.
That changed with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, many of which were then also carried out by Protestants and Anglicans worldwide. The early Christian approach to Lent as a season of intentional formation and baptismal preparation has been moved front and center again. The readings for Lent every year in both the Roman Catholic Readings for the Mass (1969, 1981) and the Revised Common Lectionary (1992) were chosen to support that work. So has the language of our own version of the baptismal covenant.
Each week during Year A, the readings correspond to a section of our baptismal vows. Worship each week becomes an occasion to celebrate and contemplate what it means to live out one or more of these vows.
Worship alone does not and cannot fulfill the formational purposes of Lent. So throughout this series, we are also providing guidance for two additional formational opportunities: formation groups and Courageous Conversation events.
Formation groups are small groups (7-12 people) that may meet in homes or other places to help one another grow into living the baptismal calling by praying together, deepening their understanding of the vows, reporting their progress on living them, and encouraging and supporting one another to live them better.
Courageous Conversation events are an opportunity to help a larger number of people from the congregation engage in learning about and deepening the congregation’s ministry with people who are often marginalized: prisoners, homeless people, immigrants, or soldiers. These Courageous Conversations may be held as a Sunday morning formation option or as part of a Lenten Series, perhaps with a light, simple meal opened to the wider community.
Our colleague, Scott Hughes, has provided outlines and guidance for five larger-group sessions for each of these situations of marginalization. Take some time to discern in your formation, outreach, and leadership teams which of these four groups of people may present the greatest opportunity for new or deepened ministry in your particular context, and use Scott’s materials to help you organize the series of Courageous Conversations that will help your congregation maximize its potential for growth in ministry with these individuals.
May these resources for worship, formation, learning, and ministry help you and your congregation have a vivifying Lent.
We gather to acknowledge our mortality and our sinfulness, and to seek God’s mercy and guidance for the season of intensive formation and re-formation in the way of Jesus that lies ahead.
We walk the way of temptation with Jesus and learn from him what it means to continue to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.
Through powerful image of new birth and the biblical story of the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus shows Nicodemus and us what it takes for us to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
In an encounter with a woman at a well in Samaria, Jesus confesses he is the Messiah, and she not only embraces this, but leads others to make the same confession.
The response of the crowds to Jesus’ healing of a man born blind says much about how our congregation can actively “nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, and include these persons now before you in your care,” or fail to do so.
The faith we confess, and the faith that transforms us, is more than intellectual assent to a theological construct. It is to stake our lives on the Triune God, and so join Martha’s confession, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into this world.”
Upper Room Books has also published a daily Lenten devotional guide, Worship in Light of the Cross, that will be supplemented with a week by week eCourse at additional cost. While these materials do not coordinate with the emphases of the Revised Common Lectionary and our worship series, some individuals or small groups may find this book and the accompanying eCourse to be a helpful guide for responding to the Call to Lenten Discipline.