One of the first sermons I gave when I started preaching was on the 1st Sunday of Lent back in 2009--where I talked about the history and traditions of Lent. I’m going to use a bit of time today going back over this Lenten history and traditions again, and then look at where we are today during this pandemic, while trying to hold up these Lenten traditions.
I hope we are all ready for this season of Lent, if we are to take it seriously. Due to the pandemic, we already missed out on what usually is a great start to begin Lent—our annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Event, which would have been our 111th this year. And this event for the past 13 years started us off into Lent by working on something which raised meaningful funds for local outreach.
The next few paragraphs providing Lenten history and traditions were paraphrased from Wikipedia. (Did that even exist in 2009? Turns out it was started in 2001—ancient modern internet history!)
Lent is the forty-day-long liturgical season of fasting and prayer before Easter. The number forty has many Biblical references: God made it rain for forty days and forty nights in the days of Noah (this flood story preceded what we heard in the first reading today--where God made his covenant with Noah with the sign of the rainbow); Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai with God; Elijah spent forty days and nights walking to Mount Horeb; the Hebrew people wandered forty years traveling to the Promised Land; Jonah in his prophecy of judgment gave the city of Nineveh forty days in which to repent. It is the traditional belief that Jesus lay for forty hours in the tomb, which led to the forty hours of total fast that preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church.
The season of Lent originated in the fourth century; it begins on Ash Wednesday and climaxes during Holy Week with Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday), Good Friday, and concludes Saturday before Easter. Originally, Lent was the time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a time of concentrated study and prayer before their baptism at the Easter Vigil, the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord early on Easter Sunday. But since these new members were to be received into a living community of Faith, the entire community was called to preparation. Also, this was the time when those who had been separated from the Church would prepare to rejoin the community. As was pointed out once by Lorraine after an Ash Wednesday service (at a shared dinner together), the six Sundays in Lent are not counted among the forty days because each Sunday represents kind of a "mini-Easter", a celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death. (Hmm, then why can’t we say Alleluias in Sunday worship in Lent? And I can eat whatever—including what I give up for Lent?)
Today, Lent is marked by a time of prayer and preparation to celebrate Easter. The forty days of Lent is connected with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for His ministry by facing the temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. Christians today can use this period of time for introspection, self-examination, and repentance. This Lenten season is equal to the season of Advent in importance in the Christian year, and it is part of the second major grouping of Christian festivals and sacred time that includes Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost.
Purple is the symbolic color used in our churches throughout Lent, for our ambo and altar frontals. Purple is used for two reasons: first because it is associated with mourning and so it anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and second because purple is the color associated with royalty, and it celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty.
For all of us in this church community, what does this season mean to us? Having grown up in the Episcopal Church I have experienced many Lenten seasons and worked with lots of different Lenten programs and studies, with wide ranging degrees of so-called success or failure. Examples have been:
-studies of various books to help with daily disciplines, like reading the Bible, prayer, and self examination;
-meeting in small groups to discuss our Lenten disciplines and how to focus our efforts as Christians better in the world; and
-using various tools to help in our daily disciplines during Lent.
I have to admit none of these involved any real fasting like Jesus or any of the early Christians did. In fact, I personally have not even really given up anything much for Lent--I just never figured out very well how to decide what to give up and how that would help me with my Lenten discipline. It has just been a real struggle for me. Having said that, I do believe that this time of Lent can be when we work on our Christian faith and daily offerings to God and help each other to become stronger members of this church and its community of believers.
In our Total Common Ministry community here at St. Mark’s, we commit ourselves to seek to honor the uniqueness of each baptized person in our church. We understand that the responsibility for mission and ministry in this place belongs to all of us. And, we seek together to develop the ministry of all the baptized in this community.
We sometimes use the term Mutual Ministry to describe this model of community. It is a partnership between God and God’s people here. Shared leadership in our community draws upon each one of our unique set of gifts, encouraging and nurturing this partnership among all of God’s people here.
I think how this model of ministry we have here at St. Mark’s can be really helpful in Lent is that since we all are in this partnership with God together, we all are equals in helping one another to strive to improve ourselves in this season. When we are normally in-person church, the priests, worship leaders, those who do hospitality, pastoral care, administer, read during the services—everyone is empowered to help the others to carry out whatever each of us decides to do for Lent to grow and walk our journeys in faith. (Maybe we should figure out how this can still be done while we are still in “lockdown” from worshipping and fellowship together. We have Zoom, we have phones, we have internet, etc. Ideas?)
I encourage you all to connect and listen to each other about our own ideas for our Lenten disciplines and studies, and to support each other as we carry them out for the next 40 days or so, in preparation for the wondrous time of Easter (with a miracle maybe in-person!).
Just a couple of thoughts I found really thought provoking to me:
-Fast from lethargy; Feast on enthusiasm
-Fast from the thoughts that weaken; Feast on promises that inspire.
Let us pray: Gentle God, during this time of fasting and feasting, gift us with Your Presence, so we can be a gift to each other in carrying out your work. Amen.