"Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent. Where can we find such customs now? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned.
That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted."
— Ranier Maria Rilke, from "Requiem For A Friend"
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 14. Have you thought about participating this year?
No season of the liturgical year has been more formative in my healing journey than Lent. While, my religious background trained me well in the reality of sin, death, and crucifixion, it did not provide much in the way of liturgical or devotional practices for lament, grief, and confession.
In my experience, this dissonance between teaching and practice fostered a sentimental approach to Jesus' life, death and resurrection, which produced Christians stunted in their ability to experience or empathize with suffering. In this view, the cross becomes a photoshopped decoration hanging in the background of a Church resistant to the invitations of the Suffering Servant who longs to save us in our suffering, and make us completely new in resurrection.
Of course, personal and global suffering permeate every day of our lives in one way or another. We live in a broken body on a broken earth, and the Church calendar doesn't intend for us to ignore the entire spectrum of human suffering and joy based on the liturgical season. Instead, the cycle of fasting and feasting, celebration and lament provides practice, piece by piece, to form us wholly as Christians. Through each season, we meditate specific portions of Scripture year after year to learn the whole story of God and His people, and not just the portions with which we are most comfortable.
When we celebrate the liturgical seasons, we grow not only in our knowledge of Scripture, but we learn also how to embody its life-giving truth. In the wisdom of our Church fathers and mothers - themselves informed by the collective memory of millenia of Jewish feasts and fasts initiated by the Creator - each liturgical season marks itself with daily, physical practices.
We are not disembodied spirits just gritting our teeth until we are released from these bodies, like an unwanted overcoat, when we die. Nor are we merely defined by the physical matter that just happen to contain a spiritual being for those who care about those things. In the accounts of the Incarnated Christ we read through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, we discover year after year a Christ, God made Man, who is not either body or spirit, but both body and spirit. During Lent, Eastertide and Pentecost, we set up camp for longer periods of time in each essential part of our being: body and spirit.
Lent is a 40 day lesson in what it means to be bodies cursed by death and decay. If you've ever received the cross-shaped ash on your forehead, you've heard the pastoral reminder of a very real, and very sad state in which we find ourselves: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, we follow the account of Christ as he makes His way to the Cross. In Epiphany, we encounter the light of divinity dwelling on Christ, inviting us to join Him as the light of the world. In Lent, we recognize and mourn the curse of sin and death that has separated man from God, even as we are invited to carry our cross and follow Christ on the road of suffering. We grow in humility and gratitude with the Lenten practice of remembering that once we were alienated from God and lived as people with no hope, and we seek mercy for those still living in that state.
There's so much joy to be found in humility. If you haven't ever fully entered into the practice of Lent, would you consider joining me this year? May I encourage you that this doesn't need to be (and probably shouldn't) be complicated.
Here are a few essential ingredients we've learned to faithfully practice Lent:
1. Attend an Ash Wednesday service.
Read a description of the service here.
2. Make a simple commitment to participate in three historical practices of the Church throughout the 40 days of Lent:
We have followed this pattern in a variety of ways throughout the past eight years we've been practicing Lent. While there have been years we've practiced a more severe fast (e.g., all sugar, alcohol, processed foods, and television), perhaps the most beneficial years are the ones we chose 1 or two things to give up. We've also learned to take up practices in their place. For example, you might choose to give up eating an entire meal (or day of meals), and in place, set aside extended time for prayer or meditation. You might fast from a certain technological device while taking up reading or walking or letter-writing in its place.
The point is to make space in our lives to give up reliance on one thing in order to grow in dependence on Christ.
3. Choose a daily devotional guide.
I've listed some of our favorites below.
4. We light candles, look at art, sing hymns, pray and read Scripture together and we try to do that every day (but we're more like 4 out of 7 days).
My best tip for you if your family feels awkward doing this? Turn the lights off! There's nothing like sitting in the dark looking at a few flickering candles to break the ice of awkward family Bible time!
A few of our favorite devotional books for Lent:
- God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter - This is my favorite Lenten devotional. The full-color artwork is gorgeous and the writings include authors like Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, Luci Shaw, James Schaap and Lauren Winner. We put this book on an easel next to our candles, along with some Bibles for people to pick up and read when they have quiet moments.
- Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter - This collection will satisfy the growing hunger for meaningful and accessible devotions. Culled from the wealth of twenty centuries, the selections in Bread and Wine are ecumenical in scope and represent the best classic and contemporary Christian writers. Includes approximately fifty readings on Easter and related themes by Thomas à Kempis, Frederick Buechner, Oswald Chambers, Alfred Kazin, Jane Kenyon, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Christina Rossetti, Edith Stein, Walter Wangerin, William Willimon, Philip Yancey, and others.
- Lenten Meditations: A Book by James B. Janknegt - Forty paintings based on the parables of Jesus, one for each day of Lent. Artwork, meditations, and prayer all by the author/artist Jim Janknegt. Brian and I had the privilege to help fund the creation of this beautiful book by one of our favorite Austin artists, and we highly recommend it to you. Great for individuals or families.
- Let Us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home - A simple collection of ideas for living out the liturgical year with your family. This book is especially geared toward families with young children.
- Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross is a great devotional for the entire year.
- The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones - "...invites children to join in the greatest of all adventures, to discover for themselves that Jesus is at the center of God's great story of salvation---and at the center of their Story too."
Lent Daybook posts, 2018
I'm planning to post each weekday during Lent, combining daily Scripture readings, art, prayer, song and a simple meditative exercise for each day. You can receive the posts in your email inbox by subscribing in the sidebar (top right of the blog web page). I'll also link each post at the blog's Facebook page and Instagram account. In order to make sure you see each post, you'll need to "like" the page and click on the "Following" button and then the "On" option in the drop-down box.
Do you obeserve Lent? Why or why not?
What are some traditions you keep to help you slow down and pay attention to the presence of God in the days leading up to Holy Week and Easter? Comment below - I'm listening!
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