What we hear on Ash Wednesday when Lent begins is this: “give alms … pray … fast … do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
These are important and weighty words. It is no wonder Lent has long been approached as a ponderous time. It should be. Away with facile words! Now is the time for deep focus, a going-into rather than a skating-across.
Critical to understanding how to approach worship and preaching on Sundays during Lent is that it is a time in which we find ourselves: First Sunday in Lent, Second Sunday in Lent, and so on. And yet, Lenten Sundays stand somewhat outside the season as celebrations of the resurrected Christ. In preparing for worship — planning the liturgy and constructing the sermon — we are mindful of the Lenten quality surrounding every day in this time of the year, but we do not let the seriousness of the season dampen our Sunday joy in thanksgiving for the gospel news of Christ Jesus. In Lent, we live the Christian paradox.
The tone of the service during Lent is neither dirgeful nor enthused. It is sober. A presiding style that understands the profound gift of Lenten practices is extremely helpful for worshippers because it sets an emotional tenor.
Hymns for Sundays in Lent, chosen for the assembly to proclaim the Word together in one voice, offer theologically rich expressions of the Passion. They give us food for spiritual sustenance and a way for the meaning of God’s great mercy to come through our very breath. Evangelical Lutheran Worship includes twenty five hymns for Lent ranging from the strong majesty of the fourteenth century, “Oh, love, how deep, how broad, how high, beyond all thought and fantasy…” to the lively spiritual, “Jesus is a rock in a weary land…” and imagery that soars, “There in God’s garden stands the Tree of Wisdom…” Many different hymns should be sung so that they come to be loved. Remember: on Monday morning, worshippers will more likely awaken with a song in their hearts than with a line from the sermon.
Historically, the church assigned special catechetical focus to Lent, teaching those who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil so that they would comprehend the renunciations and affirmations of faith. In keeping with that idea, Lent today is a good time for the congregation to recite the Apostle’s Creed in worship. Doing so teaches the children and people new to the assembly that those ancient statements of belief are also ours. The Apostle’s Creed is the baptismal creed. While the church is in Lent, it is helpful for those who are engaged in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting to regularly state the reason for their special devotion: “I believe…”
The assembly may be invited to make physical changes in worship practice. Because of its introspective, penitential quality, Lent is especially suited to kneeling for prayer. In a congregation that does not normally kneel, the physical gesture can be powerful. (It must always be emphasized that invitations to change are not required.) Where the church lacks kneelers, suggest the floor. If kneeling would not be unusual for the congregation, another bodily practice might be introduced such as standing with arms raised in an open prayer posture.
Another physical change that may help worshippers recognize the gospel import of Lent would be to distribute Holy Communion in a manner that encourages standing (rather than kneeling) to receive the elements. The standing posture underscores the lifted-up nature of the baptismal life. We stand to receive the bread and wine because we have been made whole by Jesus’ body and blood. Again, if this would be unusual for a congregation, it might be all the more powerful. Conversely, if the congregation normally stands to receive communion, a way might be found to kneel during Lent.
Of primary importance on these Sundays is that what is done in worship points always to the One who gave himself for us. We, ourselves, are not the focus of these days. The church year and the readings turn us toward the path that Jesus has set for us. Liturgical scholars talk about the worship leader being “transparent” to the work of the triune God in worship. This is especially vital in Lent.
However much Lenten sermons might include helpful instruction — about the season, the texts, the catechism, the Passion — they provide even more importantly an opportunity to proclaim the liberating grace of God through the profound paradoxes of the biblical witness. The Gospel texts are from Luke with, at last, the John story concerning Mary’s anointing of Jesus.
Year C gives us a sequence of stories that illuminates contrasting windows into faith: temptation versus resistance to evil; danger from Herod the tyrannical ruler versus protection from Jesus the mother hen; the fig tree’s failure to bear fruit and a gardener who begs for the tree to have one more chance; someone trying to run away and running, finally, home to a big party; and then a woman — a disciple — who expresses real understanding of Jesus’ meaning with her jar of nard.
Each Sunday turns the assembly to a different facet of Lent (i.e., of being catechized, being taught about Christ Jesus), while doing so in the great arena of strong narrative. These stories take us through a nutshell version of the law and gospel that form our Christian witness: temptation and resistance, danger and protection, failure and reprieve, loss of self and reconciliation, and impoverished vision versus eschatological vision.
The story of Judas and Mary defines the parameters of “where your treasure is…” Judas is, sadly, the one who may remind us most of ourselves (if we are honest). He is mired in the mindset that takes account, sets merely achievable goals, and bargains his way into success. He sees the value of things in terms of the goals that he has been able to comprehend. Mary, in contrast, knows the incredible worth of the One who sits at her table. Making a dinner in honor of Jesus just was not enough. Nothing was enough. She sees far beyond Judas’s vision. When Judas attacks her for “wasting” precious money, Jesus shuts him down and praises Mary’s devotion.
Because human fixations are mostly like Judas’ — scheming to make sure we have enough — Lenten preaching should help us sees as Mary saw. Jesus’ presence — more crucial than all of our hopes — reveals the promise of rivers in the desert, a way in the sea, the new thing. Mary pours out onto Jesus’ feet an unimaginable treasure that is still not enough to truly honor him. If we want to know what Lent is about, we can listen to Paul: the loss of all things is rubbish compared to knowing Christ Jesus. That is the gospel to sing, pray, and preach.