It is written in the gospel of Mark that Jesus came “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news'” (Mark 1:14-15; NRSV).
With this message, our Lord laid the foundation for the proclamation which lies at the heart of the church’s mission–that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our sin results in broken relationships, conflict, and ultimately, separation from God. The good news is there is “a repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10) by grace through faith in the redemptive work of Christ (Eph. 2:8).
The salvation revealed in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus is more than a one-time event; it is an ongoing process, what Paul refers to as “sanctification.” We are continually in need of God’s grace. Thus, we find ourselves seeking opportunities for spiritual self-examination and reflection which result in confession of sin and renewal of the covenant we have with God in Christ.
Annually, Lent provides the structure and the focus for such an opportunity. The season lasts 40 days, minus Sundays, recalling the time when the Lord was tempted by Satan following his baptism. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Christians in many church traditions are encouraged to intentionally reflect upon their relationship with God and the saving work of Christ in preparation for the celebration of Easter.
In the congregation I am privileged to serve, Ash Wednesday is a solemn, even heavy, time of worship. The focus is on our sin, the sin for which he who was without sin died. Those in attendance, if they so choose, are marked with ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads. The ashes are made by burning the branches of palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. These are but a symbol of the “sackcloth and ashes” of repentance worn across the centuries by God’s people as a sign of repentance. As the mark is made, the words “You are dust and to dust you shall return” are spoken (Gen. 3:19). In this manner we are reminded that we are the creatures and it is God who is the Creator; it is God who gives life and sustains life. We are dependent upon God.
Worship throughout the Lenten season focuses on our need for redemption and Christ’s journey to the cross. This emphasis continues through our last service before Easter, the Tenebrae service on Good Friday. That evening we gather for a hybrid of the traditional Maundy Thursday-Tenebrae service. Worship consists of music, scripture readings, the traditional “seven last words of Christ,” and the Lord’s Supper. This service is led primarily by the deacons in their role as the spiritual leaders of our community of faith.
Communion is served with the congregation standing in a circle around the sanctuary passing unleavened bread to one another and serving juice from heavy, crystal wine decanters which can only be managed by helping one another. This is our way of emphasizing our affirmation of the priesthood of every believer and each believer’s privilege and responsibility to serve in ministry.
Several months after beginning my pastorate here, we gathered for this congregation’s first Tenebrae service. There was only a small number of folks in attendance, perhaps 35-40. The following Sunday morning, an elderly lady sought me out. With tears streaming down her cheeks she proceeded to tell me how meaningful that service had been to her. She stated that she had never felt as close to God as in those moments, that she felt renewed and complete.
She then asked me a question that has stuck with me across the 13 years I have been privileged to serve here. She said, “Why has no one ever told us about this before? We’ve missed so many opportunities!”
Ethel, and quite literally millions of the saints of God, experienced the essence of Lent when they gathered for Tenebrae worship on that Good Friday. She felt connected as never before with the universal church and the God whom we all are called to serve. She provided for me both the theological and the practical justification for our church participating more fully in the Christian tradition called Lent, one which has bathed the people of God in his grace and love for centuries. May it be so for those in your community of faith.
Bruce Hunter is pastor of Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Troy, Va.