Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sundays In Lent

We all know how to count the forty days in Lent by leaving out the Sundays. Lent is all weekdays. Sundays may be “in” Lent, but they are not “of” it. *

The reason usually given for this is that Sunday is always to be treated as a “mini-Easter”, a time of celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. So, Sunday would seem to be out of sync with the forty day journey with Jesus on his way to the cross, ending with him buried in the tomb.

You might characterize Sundays in Lent as a kind of oxymoron—certainly Sundays and weekdays in this season are incompatible, having almost opposite emphases. They should, however, be seen in a dialectic relationship, in tension with one another – resurrection rejoicing tugging with sorrowful penitence – and out of that tension comes the powerful truth of the season.

The term “Lent” is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, which is usually translated as “spring.” Actually it is an ancient version of our word “lengthen” and had to do with the lengthening of daylight hours in the season of spring.

The Christian year often displays a sensibility to the seasons of nature, especially during Lent. While the cross looms ever nearer and darker on the horizon through the forty days, outdoors there is a slow but relentless dawning of more light every day as we move toward the glorious resurrection.

I bring all this up because it’s important to maintain that tension. Repentance, of course, is called for, and a sharp realization also of what God has done in working salvation in Jesus on the cross. At the same time, there is the rest of the story, and Lent is also a time for us to anticipate Easter—hence the Sundays which pop in every week to remind us of what’s coming.

Sunday worship during Lent, however, does not always keep this dynamic. Because many, if not most, Christians have no Lenten liturgical experience during the week, worship leaders feel obligated to cram the Sundays before Easter with Lenten emphases, to the neglect of celebrating the resurrection. Sundays in Lent, then, become Sundays of Lent. So the question is, how do you combine both emphases at the same time?

Every worship service is a journey. There is a built in GPS to worship that leads us from point A (Gathering) to point B (Sending), with two major stopping points along the way (Word and Sacrament).

The movement is also from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy, from repentance of sin to acceptance of forgiveness, from hunger and thirst as we wander in the deserts of our lives to the banquet of the Lord’s Table.

The sermon is one major turning point, moving us from the conviction of our sinfulness and alienation from God, to the confidence in God’s grace, love and power in giving new life.

Hymns, and service music, too, will accompany us on the journey—Lenten hymns early in the service, shift to more triumphant celebrations to send us on our way singing.

The Lord’s Supper will be observed not as an imitation of the Last Supper, even though its biblical warrant references that Holy Meal. The Eucharist has also a post-resurrection emphasis, as the meals Jesus shared with his followers at Emmaus and elsewhere, and as the Heavenly Banquet awaiting us all. Sensitivity to this movement of the service will enable planners and leaders to guide worshippers into a rich experience of the full dimensions of life as followers of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

What hymns would you pick for the Sundays in Lent? What other music would be appropriate to both emphases? What weekday worship experiences during Lent do you have in your church?

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*Unlike the Sundays of Advent that are counted as part of the season. Advent, in fact, is measured by the four Sundays prior to Christmas, making the season of different lengths from year to year.

1 comment:

  1. Charlotte KroekerMarch 16, 2011 at 5:55 PM

    You sparked the imagination of this musician who must exercise great discipline in offering only one hymn in response to your request. It is #282 in the Presbyterian Hymnal, titled "If Thou but Trust in God to Guide Thee," (or, If Thou but Suffer God to Guide) with its text of longing and joy set to that lovely tune, both text and tune a gift of Georg Neumark. Then also check the J.S. Bach keyboard settings of the tune, WER NUR DEN LIEBEN GOTT in the Orgelbuchlein, BWV 642, for organ with pedal, or the manuals-only settings elsewhere which work well for organ or piano, BWV 690 and 691. (BWV 691a is likely not by Bach.) I hope a congregation somewhere might experience this wonderful hymn with the surrounding keyboard music during Lent, 2011.

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