Ready or not, Lent is upon us. Ashes have been imposed, smudged or washed off, and now we’re off and running (see what I did there?) on our 40-ish day Lenten journey.
I say 40-ish because Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday is actually more like 46 days if you count them all up. Why then, you might ask, do we talk about a 40 day Lenten season?
The reason for the six “extra” days in Lent is because Sundays in Lent don’t actually count. “All Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ,” according to the Book of Common Prayer (p.16). This means that each and every Sunday is a “little Easter.” Every Sunday, in Lent or out of Lent, is a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. This is why some people ease their Lenten fast or disciplines on Sundays. It is a day for feasting, not fasting.
This is why I have always wondered why, even on Sundays during Lent, we omit the word “alleluia” from our liturgies. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t fast from the “A-word” for a season, but the heavily penitential character of Sunday liturgies seem a bit at odds with “All Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But then again, perhaps feasting and penitence are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps true repentance, conversion of life, is the real cause for celebration and feasting. “Just so,” Jesus said, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
Even if all Sundays are feasts, The First Sunday of Lent should look and feel different from The Last Sunday After the Epiphany. In most churches liturgical green will have been swapped for a penitential purple or (gasp!) a Lenten array. Most brass and silver will have been removed from the sanctuary. Icons and crosses may have been draped in purple. Even Sundays in Lent should feel different.
Which brings me to how Lent begins. No, not just with Ash Wednesday, but with The Great Litany. Suffice it to say that this is a very old prayer. Christians have been praying this litany since as early as the 5th century. It was one of the first liturgies to be translated into English by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer as he was compiling the First Book of Common Prayer (1549). The Great Litany may be lengthy, but it also has a very long history in the worship of the Church.
Though it contains some very old imagery and language, some of the petitions have always piqued my interest, such as:
“From dying suddenly and unprepared” – To the Ancients, death was something to be prepared for, not avoided at all costs. This Lent at St. Paul’s, there will be a Christian Formation offering called “Death & Dying in the Christian Tradition.” The topics will range from the practical “how to plan your funeral” to “why do we pray for the dead?” to a presentation by a hospice chaplain.
During my time as a priest I have seen people age gracefully, and I have seen people age stubbornly. I have seen people embrace death as the next stage of life, and I have seen people fearfully fight like hell against death. The Christian tradition has a lot to offer in regards to living so we’re ready to die. Embracing a holy death is part of faithful living.
“That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good” – This is probably one of my favorite petitions. As a husband, father, and priest I often feel as if I am juggling multiple vocations, or “several callings” as it is phrased in the litany. While ideally each of these vocations compliments the other, sometimes, when perfectionism gets the best of me, they can get out of whack and start competing for my attention. In a conversation several summers ago with The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, he shared with me that I wasn’t just struggling with balancing these three vocations, I was, rather, still coming to terms with the implications of my baptism. Our “several callings,” whatever they may be, all flow from our vocation as baptized persons. This is not just for self-gratification or for self-actualization, but for “the common good.”
There’s much more to Lent than just giving up chocolate, and there’s more to The Great Litany than a long list of prayers. I hope that as you hear these words this Sunday you will know that you are part of a long line of the Faithful, reaching back through the centuries, asking God for help to observe a Holy Lent and a whole life.