Etymologists tell us that the word Lent derives from the Old English lengten “lengthen,” and from the Old High German lenzin “spring.” Lent is a period when our shorthand impressions of Church include worship becoming very solemn and penitential. These are accurate descriptions, but they often carry a negative connotation, suggesting that worshippers have forgotten the intention and opportunity of Lent, opting instead for a vaguely dreaded piety erroneously thought to be torturous, self-punitive, and deprived.
Solemn and penitential it is. Torturous, self-punitive and deprived it is not. For many North American Christians, Lent is the one time in the liturgical year when they are conscious of the disciplines which, in actuality, govern them all of the time. It is as though the skeleton of our spirituality, internal for most of the year, becomes external from Ash Wednesday to Easter…externalized to reveal some things to which we give passing intellectual assent, but little if any allegiance in practice. We like the fleshy, softer, speculative parts of our religious piety, and forget that there are splendid sturdy bones carrying that flesh.
Among those sturdy long bones of our Faith are our theology surrounding repentance, amendment of life, obedience, conversion…and the liturgical expressions of those theological issues. The liturgy gives voice to what we believe, and teaches again, in familiar language, what we have chosen to ignore or forget. Prayer is vital- responsorial prayer- LONG responsorial prayer. The Great Litany is such a prayer. We will say The Great Litany as the introit to commence The First Sunday in Lent. The Great Litany exposes the laundry list of behaviors that require our attention and God’s forgiveness. The rolling cadence of The Great Litany invites us into the time when Israel sang psalms in responsorial style in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Another of those sturdy bones we expose in Lent is obedience. We are well reminded of our resistance to obedience when we hear The Ten Commandments. We will begin the services on Lent II-Lent V with A Penitential Order, in which The Decalogue is rehearsed. Ted Koppel, in a commencement address delivered several years ago, remarked that “…they are not Ten Suggestions…” While this quip may not be original with Mr. Koppel, it is of value whatever its provenance. No, they’re not ten suggestions; they are delivered to Moses in a declarative, imperative voice- meant to be obeyed.
The sturdy structure of our Faith and the skeleton of our theological discourse are rooted in God’s communication with the community. The Ten Commandments gave structure to the social contract of ancient Israel, and gives structure to us as The Church as well. By beginning Sunday Eucharists with A Penitential Order, we say our Confession and receive Absolution in the context of remembering and rehearsing aloud some baseline theology- The Ten Commandments- the sturdy long bones of our Faith.
Let the changes in our patterns of worship embrace you this Lent, that it may not simply be the forms which excite, but rather that the Faith itself will take fresh hold of you and in you. God bless you.
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents