Many years ago, Baptists reacted against the liturgical emphasis of some church traditions and in the process we threw the baby out with the bath water.
We lost the natural cadence of the “Christian calendar.” In place of the church’s holy seasons of Advent and Lent, we inserted revivals (or “protracted meetings”) each spring and fall. But nowadays, with so many changes in schedules and lifestyles, those bi-annual seasons of renewal have gone the way of the full-service gas station.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that as those revival meetings have receded, some of us are rediscovering the rich heritage and satisfying rhythms of the Christian calendar.
By the way, everyone has a liturgical calendar, a “Christian year,” even if it is Christmas Eve service-Valentine’s Day-spring revival-Mother’s Day-graduate recognition-promotion Sunday-fall revival-stewardship emphasis.
Here’s an idea. How about the best of both worlds–a Free Church returning to the Christian calendar, bringing some soul-deep, Baptist-organized, Holy Spirit-driven call to renewal? That, after all, is what Lent is all about: a time to inspect our souls, to get back to God, to call on His name, to be revived in our walk with Him.
If you’re looking for theological-biblical support for observing special holy weeks, you need look no further than Jesus’ life and ministry. He took very seriously the venerable Jewish festivals, including Passover, which became the basis for our Lenten Holy Week emphasis.
The word Lent comes from an Old English word that meant “to lengthen,” as in the lengthening days of springtime. Technically, Lent is the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday until Easter (excluding Sundays).
Historically, this season was a time when baptismal candidates were instructed in the faith and prepared for Easter morning baptism. It also became a time of spiritual inventory, discipline, cleansing and spiritual renewal. Lent is a season of preparation, devotion and focus.
Simply put, Lent has twin emphases, one negative and one positive. At the front end of Lent (beginning with Ash Wednesday), we usually stress the sobering reality of our sin and disobedience, as well as life’s frailty and brevity (hence the ashes, or dust, on that first Wednesday: “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” Gen. 3:19).
The season also puts us in touch with the marginalized of our world. For a few brief weeks, we focus on Jesus, not as the victor, but as the victim. Just as he suffered, so he moves alongside all who suffer—the least, the last and the lost.
But as the weeks roll on, the suggested lectionary readings move toward positive themes–God’s power to leverage us out of our sin and bondage; the new life that Jesus brings; the choices we have, with the Holy Spirit’s aid, to break old habits and create new ones.
The preaching and study topics of Lent are endless and rewarding: besides the obvious theme of Christ’s sacrifice, we may explore temptation, suffering, self-examination, confession, restitution, renewal, deepening our prayer and Bible study disciplines and much more. Believers can even “try on” some new disciplines for a short season (fasting, meditation, giving away more money or possessions than usual).
To heighten the emphasis, churches could publish Bible readings for the season of Lent. Or why not ask members to contribute brief devotional thoughts or art work for a devotional guide to be distributed among the congregation? In these ways, the church family moves together, deliberately, through the holy season.
Are you concerned about frightening your people with too many new things at once? Then move incrementally. I began by preaching a Lenten sermon series (and calling it that). In so doing, I explained more about the season. Another year, we added Lenten worship banners in the front of our sanctuary. Then came a Maundy Thursday communion service (the Thursday of Holy Week). Last year, we added an Ash Wednesday service and a Good Friday service.
I know what you’re thinking: “My people won’t show up on the Thursday night before Easter. School is out and they scatter to the four winds. And they sure won’t come at noon on Good Friday.” Guess what? Our services are well-attended. And people express gratitude for the worship opportunity, often with tears in their eyes.
The celebration of Lent seems to tap deeply into people’s innate desire for a journey, a sense of movement toward something meaningful. Not only does the observance link us with believers of all stripes, all across the world (and throughout the ages), it also allows us to come to Easter morning with a deeper sense of anticipation and joy.
Baptists have long proclaimed, “There is no resurrection without a cross; no glory without suffering.” Leading our people through the strange, wonderful wilderness of Lent helps us live that message faithfully. So when Easter morning arrives, joy and life burst out everywhere!
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.
For further reading:
Calendar-Christ’s Time for the Church, Laurence Hull Stookey, Abingdon Press
Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary—Lent/Easter, Marion Soards et. al., Abingdon Press