Preparing for Lent

"The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp. 264-265). By the middle of the fifth century, the Church had taken a similar approach to preparing for Advent, then known as "St. Martin's Lent."  Much of what follows may also be profitably applied to Advent.

Since Lent is itself a season of preparation, it may seem like overkill to have to prepare for Lent.  Yet, how will we take full advantage of the opportunity of Lent if we wait until the last minute to decide how to keep it?  Both the Eastern and Western Churches have long traditions of a pre-Lenten season that is designed to set the stage for keeping a productive and holy Lent.  In Orthodoxy, the Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment lead up to Forgiveness Sunday, the day before Lent.  In the West, for many centuries we observed Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, a kind of liturgical count-down of the Sundays nearest the 70, 60, and 50 day marks before Easter, with the actual 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before the Feast.

We hasten to point out that we do not believe that the elimination of the formal pre-Lenten season in the West has been a bad thing in itself.  It has allowed the reshaping of Epiphanytide as a more intentionally focused season.  This is particularly evident in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and in the Revised Common Lectionary in America, where the season is clearly defined at its beginning and end with the major manifestations of our Lord, the Visit of the Magi on Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord on the First Sunday, and the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday.  Not only does this give Epihanytide a greater integrity as a season in itself, it provides a clearer line of thematic material in the larger movement from Christmas to Easter, with the Transfiguration serving as the turning point, both temporally and theologically, from the Christmas cycle to the Paschal cycle.

Nevertheless, all of this leaves us with a major bump in the road from the point of view of personal devotion.  With the celebration of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the faithful are raised to the rarified height of Tabor, and then, just three days later, on Ash Wednesday, they are plunged into sackcloth and ashes.  It may be that this transition is too sudden.  And it is certainly the case that it fails to provide any formal or liturgical impetus to have a Lenten rule in place and ready to go on the very first day of Lent.

Lent is sometimes referred to as a pilgrimage or a journey.  Very few people set out on any kind of journey without packing a bag.  What are the things that we need to include in our Lenten luggage?  The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent in the 1979 Prayer Book provides a packing list.  The list may not be exhaustive, but it is a good start:

self-examination and repentance
prayer, fasting, and self-denial
reading and meditating on God's holy Word.

Another way of describing this luggage is to call it a rule of life.  Many Christians have a formal rule of life which they observe throughout the year.  Their Lenten rule will usually add a few seasonal exercises.  For those who do not already have a formal, year-round rule, Lent is a good opportunity to begin one.  The purpose of a rule of life is not to set impossibly high standards that might be admirable but are not practical.  A rule of life must fit the person.  A new Christian or someone new to the whole idea of a rule of life will have a more modest rule than an older, more proficient Christian.  So, the elements in the invitation above need to be tailored to the maturity of the individual.  (A spiritual companion or director can be very helpful here.)  A runner might hope someday to run a marathon, but it may take years of training at shorter distances to build the stamina and strength to achieve that goal.  Holiness of life is the goal of every Christian, but progress towards that goal is a lifelong task, not the accomplishment of a single Lent.  At the same time, the basics of a Lenten rule can set a pattern for a lifetime of spiritual growth.
 

Self-examination and Repentance

Orthodoxy calls the day before the first day of Great Lent "Forgiveness Sunday."  Anglicanism calls the day before the first day of Lent "Shrove Tuesday."  Both traditions call us to do the same thing:  to seek reconciliation with God and our neighbor.  Today, many parishes sponsor all-you-can-eat pancake suppers or Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday") parties with a symbolic last chance for unrestrained revelry and rich food before the austerities of Lent begin.  But this is to miss the point, unless they also schedule an opportunity for the faithful to make their confessions to a priest and be shriven (absolved).  Our Ash Wednesday liturgies include a rite of penitence, confession, and absolution, but how many of us take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation of a Penitent), and make a full, personal confession, and receive the counsel of a priest and sacramental absolution?  The traditional guideline regarding private confession in Anglicanism is, "all may, some should, none must."  The Anglican way of responsible freedom leaves it to the individual conscience to decide, but those who do avail themselves of this sacrament attest to its power to renew all of life in a profound way.

One of the reasons sacramental confession is such an effective tool for spiritual growth has to do with its very personal nature.  A communal rite of confession tends to generalize and depersonalize sin.  Private confession helps to particularize and personalize not only the confession but the forgiveness that is conferred.  Ultimately, confession is not about a list of offenses that need to be forgiven.   Rather, it is about relationships that need to be healed.  It is about reconciliation with God and our fellow human beings.  Private confession is a most effective means of reconciliation with God, but we often need to follow that up with specific acts of reconciliation with our neighbor.  Here we might borrow something from our Orthodox friends.  On Forgiveness Sunday, it is the custom to approach other members of the congregation, as well as neighbors and friends who may not be members of the Church, and to ask them very simply to forgive any injury or offense one may have caused them in the past year.  Our 1979 Prayer Book provides an opportunity for us to do something similar.  On page 407, it says that at the time of the exchange of the Peace at the Eucharist, "In the exchange between individuals which may follow, any appropriate words of greeting may be used."  Here is a simple application of that rubric which may be used on Ash Wednesday or the First Sunday of Lent.

A Rite of Personal Reconciliation

Directions to the congregation, given just before the Peace, should be simple, clear, and minimal, because the action and the four words speak for themselves.  The Celebrant ought to stand on the nave level at the center of the main aisle facing the people, is the architecture of the building permits.

The people approach the Celebrant on the right side of the aisle.  The exchange should be made with both hands--not a handshake.  The words, "Forgive me, a sinner", are said first by the Celebrant and the same words are given in response by each person.

The first person then goes beyond the Celebrant on the right, facing the other line, ready to make the exchange with the next in line, after her or she has made the exchange with the Celebrant.  As each new person finishes making the exchange with the Celebrant, he or she then makes the exchange with the others who have gone before and joins their line.  This continues until all have participated, making the exchange with everyone else.

After that, if there are any remaining in the congregation because of handicaps, the Celebrant goes and makes the same exchange with them. No one should be overlooked.  The members in the line may do the same.

The Liturgy then proceeds as usual. 

Self-examination and repentance should not end on Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, or even the First Sunday in Lent.  One way of incorporating this piece of Lenten luggage into a daily Lenten rule is to include a confession of sin in the recitation of daily Evening Prayer or Compline, always taking time to review the day and recollect those thoughts, words, and deeds which were occasions for sin and alienation from God or our neighbor. 

In addition to reconciliation on the personal level, we must also endeavor to heal the divisions among others.  This involves identifying and repenting of corporate sins which all of us, as individuals, share responsibility for.  Parishes and other groups of Christians might also use Lent to focus on reconciliation among races, nations, members of different religious or ethnic groups, etc.  Here is a Liturgy of Reconciliation which could be used as part of a regular Lenten program.

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to a specific discipline of self-examination and repentance, and to specific efforts to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation with those from whom one has been alienated.
 

Prayer

An ancient definition of prayer is "keeping company with God."  During Lent, we focus on our emptiness, our need to be "oned" with God.  Keeping Lent & Eastertime, a little booklet from Liturgy Training Publications (an arm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago), comments that "the full and the satisfied will not recognize Lent.  It is a season of needs, of emptiness, failure, absence.  Only when we know we need to pray can there be Lent for us."  Someone else has written, "our prayer time should be some of the best time of each day, every day."  It may include Bible reading, intercession, Psalms and hymns.  It should include silence and quiet listening.

In the Anglican tradition, personal prayer is firmly supported on a foundation of corporate prayer:  the Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist.  The Eucharist is obviously corporate prayer, but so is the Daily Office.  Though Morning and Evening Prayer (and Noonday Prayer and Compline for those who choose to add them) may be said in private, they are nonetheless the prayers of the whole Church.  The Book of Common Prayer  assumes that all Christians, or at least all Anglicans, pray the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer daily.  Practically speaking, for many this is a goal, not yet a reality, but Lent is an appropriate season to make progress towards that goal.  If you have never made this a part of your spiritual discipline, do not take on too much at once.  Make a commitment to read one office a day:  set a regular time and stick to it.  Or if the traditional offices seem too complicated, use the simpler forms of Daily Devotions found beginning on page 136 of the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.  Church Publishing Inc., has published 40 Days:  The Daily Office for Lent, which has the entire Daily Office for Lent, including the readings, all under one cover.  This is a very practical introduction to private recitation of the Daily Office for those who have never done it before.

It is especially valuable for people who live together (whether families or other shared living arrangements) to pray together.  Christianity is always about community--the community of God with humanity, and the community of believers one with another in Christ.  Prayer must always be at the heart of that community.  Whether it is the Daily Office, Daily Devotions, or Table Grace, a communal fellowship of disciplined prayer is always to be desired.

Here is an ancient prayer that is used daily in Lent by many Orthodox Christians.  It is rich in themes which are profitable for Lenten meditation.

The Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust of power, and idle talk; But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.  Amen.
 

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to a daily discipline of prayer, including some form of the Daily Office with time for silence to listen as well as to speak to God.  Commitment to more frequent participation in corporate prayer, such as participation in a weekday Eucharist, Stations of the Cross or other Lenten devotions in the parish, and/or regular prayer with other members of one's household.


Fasting

"The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial:  Ash Wednesday and the other weekdays of Lent and of Holy Week...." (Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 17).  A true fast is total abstinence from any food for the period of the fast.  The Prayer Book defines two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as Fast days and it is the custom for all who are able to give up food entirely on both of those days.  In some traditions, all forms of self-denial relating to food are called a fast, but in the West it has generally been the custom to refer to many of these practices as "abstinence", a modified fast which means giving up particular foods, such as meat on Fridays.  If we think of fasting as a form of self-denial, it is also possible, and appropriate, to extend the notions of fasting and abstinence to include activities other than eating.  Any form of self-denial may qualify as a fast, if it is undertaken in the spirit of fasting.

So, what is the spirit of fasting?  Why do we fast?  For fasting to make any sense, it must have a constructive purpose and be defined in positive, not negative terms.  Put most simply, fasting is about freedom.  Fasting frees us from slavery.  Fasting is not about "giving something up", fasting is about freeing ourselves from the control of outside forces and temptations.  Fasting can even be about saying no to ourselves when we have surrendered control of our lives to bad habits and dependencies.  Fasting is about taking control of those things that threaten to control us.  Some people suffer from addictions that rob them of their freedom.  But for many who are not clinically addicted, life still has many distractions that take control of our lives in subtle ways. 

A loss of electrical power for more than a day recently, reminded us not only of how dependent we are on resources beyond our control, but also of how different our lives might be without television, email, light to read by late at night.  There are many good things about modern technology--much labor is saved, for example, by heating systems that work automatically, as opposed to having to cut wood and keep a fire going.  But if we replace those savings with other things that start to make demands on our time and energy, what have we gained?  Food, or certain kinds of food, can be a major problem.  Do we eat to live, or live to eat?  This is not to say that food should not be enjoyed.  But in our culture eating disorders, dieting, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling are all symptomatic of the way that food can be a hindrance to all of life, the spiritual life included. 

Giving up candy, or dessert, or cigarettes may be good for us--but if they are good for us in Lent, they are also good for us through the rest of the year.  In any case, the "giving something up for Lent" syndrome trivializes fasting.  Fasting is about taking control of our lives in a positive way.  Fasting is rarely a real sacrifice for people living in developed countries, and it should not be equated with sacrifice, in any case.  Rather, fasting is about getting life back in proper balance:  eating what we need and ensuring, inasmuch as we are able, that others also have what they need; using the natural resources of the world that we need and doing our best to ensure that future generations will have what they need; organizing our time around activities that are productive of good health, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and, of course, spiritually--again, both for ourselves and for others.  A serious Lenten fast might also include reduced use of resources, such as fuel.  Is it possible to accomplish some of the tasks of daily life without driving, or could errands be planned more efficiently so that fuel is conserved?  Could we survive, in cooler climates, with the heating thermostat set a degree or two lower or, in warmer climates, with the air conditioning set a degree or two higher?  And, in addition to saving fuel, since we would be saving money could the savings be directed to a worthy cause, such as the local soup kitchen or disaster relief efforts?

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to a specific discipline regarding food and other resources:  a true fast from all food, if physically able, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; abstinence from meat on Fridays in Lent and abstinence from particular foods daily in Lent; a more frugal use of other resources inasmuch as possible.  (Note:  Sundays are never fast days.  They can be exempt from the fasting rules of Lent, but should still maintain the spirit of Lent and should not be occasions merely to break the rules.) 


Almsgiving

The invitation to Lent omits one of the major traditional components of a Lenten rule:  almsgiving.  Almsgiving is, in fact, a form of fasting, a form of self-denial.  As God says to Israel:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

                                                           Isaiah 58:6-7

Prayer helps us to see as God sees.  Fasting frees us.  We are given more time, more energy, more resources.  "All year we tolerate the intolerable:  that there are adults and children without nourishment, sick and elderly people and prisoners without visitors, refugees without homes.  The gospel we believed shapes a church that gives alms of every kind:  bread for the hungry, time for the lonely, energy to change systems that oppress and torture and kill people.  Freed by our fasting and formed by our prayer, we have alms to give during Lent.  Lent is not to make up for our sins but to battle with evil, with sin.  It is not to be gotten over with, but to shape the church into the kingdom of God.  That's why we do it gladly."  (Keeping Lent & Eastertime)

We have already suggested that the proceeds of our self-denial might be directed to helping the needy.  True almsgiving goes beyond sharing our surplus and is not an alternative method of raising funds to support the institutional church.  True self-denial trusts God to fill our needs and does not count the cost of helping those in need.  From assisting a needy person or family in our own community to contributing to agencies that minister to the poor, the sick, and victims of disaster and war, we have many opportunities for almsgiving.  Furthermore, as Isaiah suggests, our fasting, self-denial, and almsgiving should not be limited to sharing our bread. The establishment of justice for all, in the peaceable kingdom of God, must be the ultimate goal of all our prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  Giving time and effort to the reform of unjust institutions and nations is a most Christian, and very Lenten, endeavor. 

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to feed the hungry by contributing to local charities such as food pantries and soup kitchens.  Commitment to aid the needy throughout the world by contributing to agencies that address those needs.  Commitment to active support of particular efforts to end injustice and establish peace.
 

Reading and Meditating

Scripture is the record of God's ongoing love affair with his people Israel--the first Israel who descended from Abraham in the flesh and were redeemed from slavery and were led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and the new Israel who are redeemed by the sacrifice of the Son of God himself in the flesh and freed from sin by the water of Baptism.  A people without a history is a people without an identity.  To know who we are and, even more importantly, to know who God is and what his will is for us, we need to know our history.  We hear much about Biblical orthodoxy these days, but we should be even more concerned about Biblical literacy.  And the truth is that a lifetime of reading and meditating on God's holy Word can never fully disclose, let alone exhaust, the riches of his steadfast love and constant attention to us.  In other words, the Bible is a book we must never tire of reading.  In fact, it is a story that, quite literally, has no end, at least from the perspective of our present mortality.  Ultimately, it is our story and, though the written portion was completed many years ago, the story continues in us.  It does not end in us, but we cannot fully play our part without entering fully into the part that has come before us.  And so, we read, and read, and read again.  And as we read and read again, as we reflect and meditate on what we read, we do indeed enter more fully into our own part in the story.

Reading and meditating on God's holy Word, is a year round task.  But, like most year-round tasks, it is one that we need to be renewed and refreshed in from time to time.  Lent is such a time and our goal should be simply to renew (or, for the newcomer, to establish for the first time) a regular discipline for reading Scripture every day.  For this, the Church has provided most admirably.  We do not need to invent a scheme because we already have one.  The Lectionary for the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer provides a systematic system for reading the Bible over a two year cycle.  There is no particular beginning point.  One can begin anywhere one likes, though the beginning of a season like Lent is a good place as modern Lectionaries are organized somewhat thematically around the seasons.  This was not always so.  Thomas Cranmer's first Prayer Book lectionary began with Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 on January 1st and read straight through in one year, without reference to the liturgical season.  Later versions of the lectionary changed that.

Scripture is the essential reading material that should be in every rule of life.  But there is also a good deal of non-scriptural writing available that helps with the understanding of Scripture and of the Christian life in general.  The season of Lent, with its intentional focus on renewing the Christian life, is a natural season to add some additional reading to our daily rule.  This does not have to be, indeed it should not be, complex scholarly dissertations.  It might be a good book on prayer, such as one of those by Anthony Bloom.  It might be a reflection on Christian community such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together.  It might be a spiritual classic, such as the writings of FHD's patroness, Julian of Norwich.  Or it might even be a good work of Christian fiction, such as C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces or the Chronicles of Narnia.   All of these help to illuminate the Christian experience and are worthwhile material for reading and reflection for Lent, or any time of year.

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to daily reading of Scripture and to a modern book on Christian themes.
 

If you found this page helpful, you may also be interested in reading Lenten Customs and our page on Easter Customs.

Looking for more ideas about keeping Lent?  Check out A Full Homely Lent.

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