The early church created Lent as a season for the church to accompany people entering the final stretch of their preparation for baptism at Easter or rites of reconciliation and restoration during Holy Week (Maundy Thursday).
The early church developed the fifty days of Easter Season as a time for the church to accompany the newly baptized or reconciled on a journey of formation in doctrine and ministry. Easter Season was designed as a time to learn more about the mysteries of the faith, particularly but not only, the theology of the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, and to help these people discern and respond to the gifts and calling of the Holy Spirit for ministry in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power.
The lectionaries the church developed, East and West, were designed initially at least to underwrite these core formational purposes of preparing people for a life of discipleship and ministry. Over time in the West, starting in the late fourth century in some places, these purposes became increasingly overshadowed by other concerns, including a proliferation of saints days and a shift toward providing intensive formation, primarily only for those preparing to become clergy or join a monastic order. Lent, for most, became a season of personal penitence and self-discipline; and Easter became a season of celebration without much in the way of formation of people in doctrine or ministry.
With the significant reforms flowing out of the work of liturgical scholars beginning in the late nineteenth century and culminating in substantially revised ritual and calendars among Roman Catholics and Protestants alike beginning in the 1960s, the original purposes of these seasons have been recovered and the lectionaries (Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionary) have been designed to support the church in its mission of making and sending disciples of Jesus Christ.
Concurrent with the renewal of lectionaries to support worship that supports the making and sending of disciples through these seasons, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike have recognized that participation in corporate worship alone does not accomplish this goal. Small groups focused on these formative purposes are also essential. Among United Methodists, Daniel Benedict’s book, Come to the Waters, has been one of the most significant contributions to the growing literature describing how these ideally lay-led groups are formed, what they do, and how what they do, together with what happens in worship during these seasons, can be effective ways of ensuring we do accomplish the purposes of these seasons.
While the use of the Revised Common Lectionary in The United Methodist Church is commended, it is voluntary, not mandatory. If you choose not to use the lectionary during these seasons, you are encouraged to develop worship and formation groups based on texts that support the purposes the church originally intended for these two seasons.
Beginning the Journey: Ash Wednesday
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. As we note in our official ritual for this day, “we confront our mortality and confess our sin before God within the community of faith.” Ash Wednesday is about death, first of all, because this journey of being born anew to a living hope in Jesus Christ requires that we also die with him, “buried with him in baptism.” Starting with powerful reminders of our mortality reminds us our work of accompanying others toward baptism and personal spiritual disciplines during this season are not a kind of “self-help” or “up by our own bootstraps” exercise. We do not “take on” spiritual exercises. We submit more profoundly to the use of the means of grace. We do not “make ourselves better.” Rather, we open ourselves more profoundly to the operations of divine grace. We do not “hang tight” to make ourselves get better. We let go, trusting God, through submitting to these means, to make us more holy.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We remember, we face up, and we fess up. We are mortal. We cannot save ourselves from death, or the second death. And we are sinners… in the hands of a compassionate God who seeks to save us, not leave us in the paths of destruction to which we are otherwise inevitably heading.
Additional Ash Wednesday resources, including a Contemporary Service for Ash Wednesday (with suggestions for projection and musical suggestions from The Faith We Sing and Worship & Song) are available.
Lent: The Season of Catechesis
“Catechesis” is the term the early church used to sum up the purpose of its three-year core process for preparing people for baptism, culminating in a most intensive final stretch in the third year during Lent. The word catechesis for many Christians today has perhaps become more associated with another word, “catechism.” And “a catechism” in the popular mind refers to a list of answers one is supposed to learn by rote in response to a series of questions about Christian doctrine.
That’s not what the word catechesis means, though, nor what the early church meant by it. Catechesis comes from two other Greek words, “kata” and “akouw,” which together literally mean something like “to listen alongside.” We get our word “echo” from this word. That’s the sense behind its early Christian usage. Catechesis is the process by which the church comes “alongside” candidates for baptism to help them learn how their lives can become a “living echo” of Jesus. Catechesis, and these forty days of Lent, in particular, were about helping us learn how to live the way of Jesus. This period of catechesis was barely about doctrine at all.
Here is an outline of the gospel readings for Lent, themes for each Sunday, and connections to the major verbs of the baptismal covenant to explore during worship and work on during the intervening weeks in small, formational groups. These themes and suggestions for formational groups will be further developed in the Worship Planning Helps designed for each of these Sundays during the coming year.
|Lent 1||Wilderness||Mark 1:9-15||Renounce, Reject, Repent|
|Lent 2||Expectations||Mark 8:31-38||Accept, Resist|
|Lent 3||Cleansing||John 2:13-22||Confess, Trust, Serve|
|Lent 4||Believe INTO||John 3:14-21||Join (in union with…)|
|Lent 5||Called to Die||John 12:20-33||Remain, Represent|
|Palm/Passion||The Passion||Mark 14:1-15-27||Surround/Pray|
|Maundy Thursday||Pre-Washing||John 13:1-17,31b-35||Surround/Pray|
|Good Friday||Execution||John 18:1-19:42||Surround/Pray|
|Holy Saturday (am)||Vigil at Tomb||Matthew 27:57-66||Surround/Pray|
|Great Vigil of Easter||Resurrection||Mark 16:1-8||Baptism/Profession|
Easter: The Season of Mystagogy and Discernment for Ministry
Mystagogy means “guiding people into the mysteries.” Early Christians designed this season as a time of intentional formation in doctrine to follow the intensive period of catechesis during Lent, which, as we have seen, was primarily about formation in the way of Jesus. It was behave first, then believe. It was about learning the way first, then learning the words and concepts that give that way depth and meaning.
Easter Season is also designed to enable the newly baptized or those recently reaffirming their faith to discern and claim their place in ministry in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power.
Easter Season begins and ends with Sundays of celebration. Between, each Sunday includes two dimensions, or two foci, week by week. One is on doctrinal formation (mystagogy). The other is on formation for ministry. As during Lent, worship during Easter Season points toward and supports this season’s formational purposes, and a formational process for persons that best occurs in small groups.
Here are the foci and “group work” for each Sunday in Easter Season.
|Sunday||Doctrinal Focus||Ministry Focus||Ministry|
|Easter||Celebrating Resurrection||Discerning Spiritual Gifts|
|Easter 2||Thomas’s Confession||Life in Community||How your gifts build community|
|Easter 3||Communion/Repentance||Proclamation||Using your gifts to proclaim repentance and/or forgiveness|
|Easter 4||The Authority of Christ||Serving for the flock’s sake||Identify your flock and how you can show love for/with them|
|Easter 5||Constant Communion||Cultivating Seekers||Leader or group does check-in on spiritual practices of group members|
|Easter 6||The Work of the Spirit||Promptings of the Spirit||Follow a prompting and report to the group|
|Easter 7/Ascension||The Ascension of Christ||Being witnesses||Commit to ways to be on mission/in ministry for commissioning at Pentecost|
|Pentecost||Celebrating the Spirit||Reaffirmation of Baptism and Commissioning for Ministry||Launch Accountable Discipleship Groups|
Developing worship and small groups that support each other during these seasons of Lent and Easter will go a long way toward helping your congregation experience these two seasons as the early church had designed them—seasons of discipleship. The attention you continue to give in worship to those who are engaging intentional formation in small groups will strengthen both the small groups and the whole congregation’s sense of these seasons as purposeful journeys of affirming or reaffirming their own discipleship to Jesus and what it means to be in ministry in his name and the Spirit’s power. The outcome you can expect, as the early church did, is more people in your worshiping community who are equipped and supported to live as disciples of Jesus who actively join God’s mission of transforming the world.