The Lenten season is a time for reflection on the suffering and death of Jesus. During this time we emphasize our own dying with him, and so, like Jesus, we must prepare ourselves to obey God no matter what sacrifice it involves (Luke 5:35; 1 Cor. 9:27; 2 Tim. 2:4; Heb. 11:1-3).
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The Lowliness of Christ
The Lenten season is that forty-day period of the Church year which starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Saturday of Holy Week. It calls the faithful community to reflect on Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, and death. Following our Lord in his preparation for his Passion, we prepare ourselves on the way of the Cross for full obedience to God. The season of Lent is, therefore, as one commentator put it, a season of “preparation, accompaniment, and journey.” As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the church finds its life in his sacrifice on the Cross, his victory over evil, chaos, sin, and death, and his restoration of all things through his resurrection, his ascension, and soon return.
Beginning with the recognition of Ash Wednesday, we accompany our Lord on his journey to the Cross, humbling ourselves before him who gave his all for us in order that we might be set free from sin, Satan, and the grave. Ash Wednesday historically has been observed as a day of fasting and repentance that reminds us that as disciples we journey with Jesus which ends in the Cross (Luke 9:51). Ash Wednesday begins the observance of Lent.
Welcoming New Converts, Restoring Backsliders, Strengthening Disciples: Lent in the Ancient Church
Modeling our spiritual passion after the candidates for baptism of the ancient church, so we too strive during our observance of the Lenten season to be faithful with Jesus on our way to the Cross and the Tomb. This is the heart of the our participation and witness of the covenant of faith confirmed in our baptism. Even as Jesus died upon the Cross, so we too by faith have died with him to sin, and even as he lives forevermore, so too we live in newness of life (Rom. 6.4-6). In all phases of our personal and private worship, in our small groups, our congregational times, and all disciplined seeking of the Lord, we acknowledge our Lord’s lowliness, humiliation, and sacrifice on our behalf, and ask for his grace to become more like him in his death. Only through this humbling, this brokenness and openness to his Spirit, can we as followers of Jesus come to fully know the freedom and life that he alone can provide.
In the ancient Church, this season was a dedicated time of preparation for those seeking baptism and incorporation into the Church. This was a season of profound soul-searching and preparation. In a striking display of allegience to Christ and departure from worldliness, candidates for baptism experienced a formal service of exorcism, one final act of supreme separation from the world in preparation for their incorporation into the Church.
After undergoing an extended vigil on holy Saturday, all new converts were welcomed into the Church on Easter morning through their confession at baptism! The Lenten season too, was also a time to reclaim the penitent--it was a time when backsliders who had returned to the Church were encouraged to join in these observances and ready themselves for a fresh start as re-commited disciples. Over time, the whole Church joined these converts and penitents in this season of readiness, with all believers affirming together their desire to flesh out in tangible and compelling ways their discipleship. Discipleship is not merely for those seeking baptism or to be restored after sin; rather, it is also for all who love the Lord Jesus and who strive to honor him in truth and deed. During this season, we all accompany these seekers and together follow the journey of our Lord as he traveled to the Tree where our redemption was won.
Through God's gracious act of God’s revelation, Peter acknowledged Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of the Living God. Immediately after this, the disciples were warned to tell no one of this truth. It was then that our Lord began to teach the disciples of his impending death, and the resurrection to come. It was then that he challenged them to take up their crosses and follow him. It was then that he revealed God’s full plan for his entering into sufferings in order that he might be glorified later:
Luke 9:22-26 saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."  And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
Lent is our resounding “Yes!” to follow our Lord to the Cross. During this season we take up our crosses and follow him. This journey is recognized in different ways by different traditions and churches. Using ashes made of the previous year’s palm leaves from Palm Sunday celebrations, many congregations start the journey on Ash Wednesday, signifying their commitment to brokenness with the mark of ashes on their foreheads on that day. Others begin with special times of discipline, reading, and practice of spiritual and ministry disciplines to show their solidarity with all other believing congregations who spiritually accompany our Lord to the Cross once more during the Lenten season. However you choose to begin your journey and recognize our Lord’s humility and availability, stay focused on the challenge and blessing of identifying with our Lord in his death. Let your tradition, context, and situation guide you as you explore ways to tangibly demonstrate your identification with our Lord and his people as they journey to Calvary.
Incorporating Believers into the Church Through Baptism: Following the Way of Jesus
Restoring the ancient Church’s focus on preparation for incorporation into the Church through baptism can be a wonderful way to renew one’s faith and discipleship. The Revised Common Lectionary readings emphasize this focus.
Placing the observance of Lent in its ancient and historical context enables us to see how significant this season of the Church Year was for penitents and new converts then, and for our spiritual formation now. This entire season was known as a time of preparation and readiness, climaxing for candidates for baptism in an Easter baptism and celebration of the Lord's Supper. Backsliders who had repented and were coming back to the Church used this season to reorient their lives under the lordship of Christ, and sought to forsake the world and its pollution, and be re-incorporated into the family of God. Through the teaching on the Creed, the cleansings and the rites, and the tutoring and training, the new converts and penitents prepared with the entire congregation for a new level of spiritual life and growth.
Truly, Lent was not merely a time of giving up a few delicacies or habits; rather, Lent became associated with a re-ordering of one's priorities and direction, all under the long-casting shadow of the Cross of Calvary. Jesus' story of submission and humility, then, is offered to us as our own personal journey of transformation as we prepare to die to ourselves in order to live anew with the risen Christ.
Walking the Way of the Cross: Remembering the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth
The Lenten season, then, is a time for reflection on the suffering and death of Jesus. During this time we emphasize our own dying with him, and so, like Jesus, we must prepare ourselves to obey God no matter what sacrifice it involves. Lenten observance calls for people to fast as a way of affirming this attitude of obedience (Luke 5:35; 1 Cor. 9:27; 2 Tim. 2:4; Heb. 11:1-3). Let us then humble ourselves, inviting one another to new levels of identifying with our Lord in his death through times of fasting, sacrifice, prayer.
Some traditions challenge their members to engage in tangible acts of "self-denial," in order to visibly make oneself more open to God's leading. Others invite members, couples, and families to deny themselves of things which hinder or distract during this season, and to serve in ways that reflect obedience to God and love to neighbor. As those made free through the shed blood of Christ (Gal. 5.1), we ought to emphasize that, whatever our observances during the season of Lent, we are free in Christ to respond as he leads us. We ought neither to mandate nor insist that we fast during this season; such practice cannot be seen as an emblem of spiritual superiority or uniqueness.
On the contrary, Lenten observance has been viewed as a journey where the Christian community joins its candidates for baptism and reconciled believers in following Christ into a life of repentance and faith. Let us encourage and bless one another in all areas of our responses, and insist only that each follows that which the Holy Spirit has prompted them to do in solidarity with God’s people.
However you may specifically reflect and respond to our Lord’s suffering and death, let your meditation and practice individually and corporately affirm your participation in the humility of Christ, and your longing together to be one with him in his death and risen life.