Next Wednesday will mark the beginning of the season of Lent in the liturgical calendar. Many of us are probably familiar with this season as it marks the six weeks leading to Easter. The forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) are purposed for a time of dedication, devotion, penitence, confession, and repentance. Most likely we are familiar with Lent through acts of discipline – by abstaining from certain things (like ice cream, chocolate, soft drinks) or dedicating ourselves to others (scripture reading, fasting, prayer).
Historically, however, Lent has had a broader focus than personal spiritual discipline. Laurence Hull Stookey writes in his book, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, that throughout the ages there have been three main foci in the church during the season of Lent. (I apologize for not having specific page references. I recently loaned my copy of this book to a friend.) These foci deal with three areas:
1) Those joining the community of faith
2) Those within the community of faith
3) Those apart from the community of faith
For those joining the community of faith, Lent was a time of increased initiation. Specifically, the church came along side of this group and provided an intense time of teaching about the doctrines of faith, the practices of the church, and the narrative of scripture. This was done in preparation for their joining the community of faith, marked by their baptism on Easter Sunday.
The second area is what most of us know. Lent focused on spiritual reflection, devotion, and repentance by those within the community of faith. It was a time for the community to dedicate themselves more fully to God, recognizing their brokenness and need for a Savior, preparing their hearts and lives for Holy Week, ending with the great Easter celebration. Fasting and prayer became standard practices for the church during this season, as well as other disciplines such as increased giving to the poor.
Apart from those somehow within the community of faith, Lent also focused on those outside of the church. Though this is something forgotten in many traditions today, the church once understood Lent as a time to deliberately seek out those who had backslidden from the faith or left the church. Similarly, Lent was a time for evangelism, seeking to bring new people into the Christian faith. Thus, there was both an inward and an outward purpose for the season of Lent in the church.
These historical foci bring me to ask the question are we limiting Lent? As I have entered into the season of Lent in the past, I will admit it has only been through foci number two. Has such a strong push toward self-denial led the church to become more self-centered? Certainly self-denial, discipline, and repentance is not a bad thing. But what do we lose when we omit the other two foci of this season?
Here are some questions that maybe we can think through together in our churches this year during the season of Lent:
* Are there those who have backslidden from the faith that we need to seek out and bring back to the church?
* Who has disappeared from our community of faith and will we be intentional about seeking them?
* Who are the unchurched around us that we can be intentional about trying to bring into the church?
* Are there people within our community of faith we need to be intentionally discipling and teaching?
* Are there new believers that need someone to come along side of them and teach them the doctrines of the faith, the practices of the church, and the narrative of scripture?
* How will we within the community of faith dedicate ourselves to fasting and prayer, discipline and almsgiving?
* What repentance do we need to make both as individuals and as a church?
I pray that this season of Lent will be truly blessed for the Church. May the grace of God be with you!