Lent is not a Forty-Day Good Friday… or Ash Wednesday

When I was a kid, Jesus’ blood was everywhere during Lent.

The Wednesday Lenten series’ I remember best were those that impressed upon us over and over again the many ways we had continued to crucify Jesus. One year was the five-week trial of Jesus. Another year was the ongoing sparing of Jesus and Satan dressed in red and white turtlenecks. There were rough wood crosses in the chancel and cut nails to take home. Withholding of absolution. Sin, death, and the desert. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Rotten lump of maggot-fodder. Forty days of pretending. Pretending that we were a people without hope.

All of which might be helpful for Ash Wednesday or Good Friday but I’ve come to believe are not the best choice for Lent. As I got older, I was exposed to a more life-giving vision of Lent. The Lent of springtime, of a springtime of the spirit, of renewal, of adjustment, of turning, returning, and reorienting, of metanoia. A Lent not of paralysis but of action: fasting, prayer, and acts of love. A Lent of journeys, journeys along the life of faith, journeys to the baptismal font.

The renewed baptismal emphasis seen in the Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship has transformed the experience and understanding of Lent for many of us who grew up with Lutheran Book of Worship. A powerful new vision for Lent is as a journey to the font. This vision is modeled on earlier experiences of the Church and on the origins of Lenten celebrations, on forty days (or years) in the wilderness for purification, on forty days in the ark surrounded by water, on forty days of intensive preparation for Easter baptism candidates. Lent for me has been transformed.

The observation of Lent in a parish with an active practice of Easter baptism is beyond the scope of this essay, but let me lift that up as a goal. I have experienced the transformational power of this practice not only for the celebration of Lent but also for congregational life in general. The assembly can come to understand that its work throughout the year is to prepare candidates (adults) for Easter baptism. Congregational mission can come to include this metric: “If we have no candidates for Easter baptism, what have we been doing all year?”

The Year of Matthew (Cycle A) lectionary readings are especially powerful for this linking of Lent and Baptism. But the Lenten readings in every cycle include some water images that can take us to the baptismal font. For those us of us in parishes that aren’t there yet, mine included, what else can we do to get there? Here are some suggestions:

In your Lenten planning:

  • Examine your baptismal space
  • Move the font to a different location — near the assembly
  • Keep water in the font
  • Get rid of the lid
  • Make the water visible — temporarily (for five weeks). Get a bigger bowl if necessary
  • Teach a baptism class for everyone
  • Look at the Ten Commandments and Creed — maybe a confirmation retread in a light-hearted and accessible way. The assembly will be relived to discover that they are all in the same boat — they don’t remember what they think they were “supposed” to learn in eighth grade
  • Tell baptism stories
  • Preach with an eye to baptism themes (look for the water)
  • Develop an expectation for Easter baptisms and abstain from baptisms during Lent
  • Invite deeper prayer, returning to baptism and the font
  • Invite spiritual exercises and disciplines for forty days — fasting or adding disciplines, prayer, acts of love, charity, mercy; experiential prayer practices or groups
  • Plan to use a confession at the font, affirmation of baptism, and thanksgiving for baptism throughout the season, or prepare the assembly for renewed appreciation and celebration of these rites during Easter
  • Avoid using shame/guilt and tempting this season
  • Avoid a forty day exposure to bloody Jesus
  • Avoid preaching as if (pretending) the resurrection never happened

More specifically, consider midweek Lenten preaching series on baptism exclusively. This forty day discussion of baptism can develop a hunger for movement into this renewed vision. Each week might consider a different vision of baptism (and of baptismal fonts):

  • doorway-initiation-passage
  • tomb-dying/rising
  • womb-birth
  • tub-washing
  • spring-oasis-river

All this is to say that if Lent in your parish has been a forty-day Good Friday (or Ash Wednesday), or if these days seem sleepy or a drag, there are deep riches in associating Lent with baptism, sacramental exploration, and preparing the assembly to return to the font and affirm their commitment to their own baptismal covenants.