This Wednesday, February 10, marks the begging of Lent – the season in which Christians prepare themselves for holy week and the celebration of Christ’s rising on Easter Sunday. In early Christianity, new believers were often baptized on Easter eve. They underwent a period of instruction in preparation for their baptism, and a period of fasting in preparation for their communion. By fifth-century Rome, this expanded to include public penance in sackcloth and ashes by grievous sinners. By the ninth century this tradition died out, but including an ash mark reminded the faithful of their need for penitence. By tradition Lent includes three elements: instruction, self-denial, and penitence.
But for what are Christians preparing? An insight comes from I Timothy 4:7, which in the New English Bible translation reads:
Keep yourself in training for the practice of religion.
Former Georgetown Presbyterian Church minister Campbell Gillon has observed that,
Now training of any sort involves one necessary element – discipline. A person can have access to a splendid library of volumes on every conceivable subject and still be abysmally ignorant of the wealth of knowledge they contain. It takes a certain discipline to sit down, shut out all distractions, open a book, and concentrate on what is written so as to transfer knowledge from print to the head. We need a similar discipline to bring knowledge of God from the pages of His Word to our own inmost being.
At St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, the Adult Education Ministry provides each Lenten season a special opportunity for instruction and growth. This year interested members can gather at noon on Wednesdays (beginning on Feb 17, and continuing through March) at the Platte River Inn in downtown Honor for lunch and discussion with Rev Anne. The Lenten study group will study Christ’s last supper with his disciples as recorded in the Gospel of John. The study will follow William Willimon’s, Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord’s Table as if for the Last Time. If you are unfamiliar with Willimon, this is an opportunity to read one of the 21’st century’s prominent theologians. A Pulpit & Pew Research on Pastoral Leadership survey determined that Willimon and Henri Nouwen were the two most frequently read writers by pastors in mainline Protestantism. One reviewer wrote of Thank God It’s Thursday:
in Willimon’s skillful hands we discover the riches embedded in John’s description of that final Thursday evening. We are led into Jesus’ call to love and serve and recognize in this portrayal of the Supper and the teachings attendant to it the true presence of Christ in our midst. One warning– Willimon doesn’t pull punches. He calls it like he sees it, so beware — he likely will step on your toes! But, if you want to understand Maundy Thursday, this is a good place to begin!
Within the Reformed tradition of Christian practice, instruction seemed a reasonable activity for Christians, self-denial and penitence less so. John Calvin criticized Lent as a “superstitious observance,” and Zwingli complained that the rules of Lent had more to do with obeying Rome than with obeying the Gospel, which, after all, said nothing about whether or not to eat sausages in the weeks preceding Easter. Presbyterians are sometimes confused about how to conduct themselves during Lent.
I’ll leave as a homework assignment for others to determine their own best balance of instruction, self-denial, and penitence. An easy way to begin this exercise is to join the group discussions at the Platte River Inn this Lent. Order a cheese-burger or veggie-burger as the Holy Spirit directs!