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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Limiting Lent?

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!  


  1. Self-centeredness, a.k.a. narcissism comes in many levels. The true narcissists look at mirrors all day long and are consumed with their own looks, piety, possessions, etc. No one enjoys being around such people.

    However, narcissism enters the church in more subtle ways, and is evidenced by songs about oneself, by church programs that don't reach outside the church walls, and by personal prosperity sermons.

    The opposite of this is an active faith that cares not just about one's own condition, but the condition of the church, the community, and the world at large. A true Lent will take into evaluation all these foci!

    David Chism

  2. Hello, Jonathan. Interesting post.

    I think the author might be too strongly divorcing (2) from (1) and (3).

    First, the community fasts and prays alongside those who are fasting and praying in preparation for baptism and chrismation. If I recall, this is one of the main motivations historically for the development of Lenten ascetical practices. Also, catechesis was premised on and usually began with instruction on living such a life - a life of prayer and self-denial. This is foundational to Patristic theology - only the pure in heart shall see God. So, the ascetical aspect of Lent isn't divorced from the catechetical aspect insofar as it's a community all struggling together in this regard. No one is saved alone.

    Second, I think almsgiving connects (2) and (3). Almsgiving is a form of self-denial as well as an act that goes beyond the walls of the church. It means to give one's time and attention - as well as one's money - to others. We spend less time and money on ourselves to spend more time and money on others within and without the Church in order to care for their needs whether physical or spiritual. So, properly understood, almsgiving has a very evangelical character to it and it's part and parcel of the ascetical life. Thus, (2) and (3) are bound up together.

    Also, in this regard, I can't help but quote St Seraphim of Sarov: "Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved." The Spirit is acquired by opening oneself through the action of God's grace by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving...

    So, properly contextualized, I think all these things are bound together. The problem in our context is that they have to be pieced back together again in a sort of artificial way because they're no longer part of a living tradition here in the West.

    -Brad Vien

  3. David and Brad - thank you both for your comments! They are much appreciated.

    Brad - I completely agree with what you are saying with holding together the three foci in Lent. This was Stookey's purpose in the chapter of his book as well as my purpose with the blog, though I may have failed to adequately explain it so. The three foci could not (and should not) be separated, but we certainly have done so in the West. Maybe "areas" wasn't the best word for me to use - facets or something of the like might have been better. But yes, they were intrinsically tied to one another. There are some hints of that still today, (as in almsgiving, catechism, etc), but I'd say most evangelical churches tend to see Lent as a time of repentance and discipline. At least that has been the case for many people I've had conversations with recently.

    Great thoughts and comments! And thanks for the examples/quotes.

    - Jonathan