• Preparing for Lent (Year A)

    The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2020, copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress.


    “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 2:5). It is to this Passion Sunday text, a vision of disciples remade in the mind of Christ, that all of Lent builds in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. The season of baptismal preparation provides a rich palette of biblical texts in which the people of God both strive and fail to live faithfully into the mind of Christ. The grace of God provides a never-ending spring of encouragement. From the contrasting prayers of the hypocrites and those who pray in secret, through the amazing but flawed faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah, to the over-enthusiastic woman at the well and the reticent parents of the one given sight, we see Sunday by Sunday just how complicated and difficult it is to cultivate and live into the sacrificial, servant mind of Christ. Like a steady drumbeat, Romans provides a solid theological commentary on abundant human sin and abundant God-given grace throughout the season.

    At the same time, one need not scratch too deeply beneath the surface of these texts of baptismal preparation to find the living waters. In these forty days of dry bones and lack of vision, God points us toward the paschal mystery on the horizon and the saving waters that await our renewal. Gracious encouragement abounds. Through the God who so loved that world that the self-emptying Son was given, our hope is encouraged in the living waters of a Samaritan well, in the water flowing from the rock, in the horn of oil and the mighty outpouring of the Spirit, in mud and washing.

    Through a sublime and tightly woven symphony of stories across this season we see God’s ancient people mirroring our own lives—the equivocation of Adam and Eve, laid against the faithfully following Abraham. Nicodemus comes with bold questions to Jesus but only under the cover and safety of darkness. The Bethany sisters both accuse and confess. In all their complexity, these characters despair and hope, work and wonder, live and die as we ourselves do. And our only real hope is every bit as complex and mysterious—the waters of baptism toward which the church of the self-emptying Christ moves. They are waters of death, then life. Of dying, then rising. Of sin swallowed up, then life given and renewed.

    At Lent 5’s crest, Martha confronts our Fountain of Grace: “Lord, if you had been here . . .” (John 11:21). But isn’t that just the point? Christ was here, is here, all along, and we are too pre-occupied, too dried up and deserted in our own self-centeredness to notice. Yet baptismal grace calls us out of the valley, out of the tomb, out of that final resting place of desperation where our own ill-conceived agendas have landed us. Sunday after Sunday, the Jesus revealed in these texts stands before the tomb of the assembly and calls us back to life. Day after day, the wise preacher will remind us, the Risen One stands at the tomb of our defeated lives calling, “Come out!” (John 11:43). Today is a new day in which to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

    Intercessory Prayer

    One of the first things heard by the people of God entering the Lenten season is a word of warning about how we practice our piety. Named specifically in that warning is how we pray, or rather, how we should not pray. Lent is perhaps the season for us to work on streamlining our petitions before God, not for the sake of brevity alone, but so that we might find renewed focus in our praying. Such focus might be encouraged by how we pray, not just what we pray. Shorter petitions may leave time for the assembly to silently reflect on their own need for repentance and forgiveness, or to name for themselves the people and situations that are in need of God’s holy restoration. These needs might be written down and hung on some bare branches or a rudimentary cross in the chancel or near the baptismal font. Such action may allow us to pray with and for one another throughout the week.

    Early in the season, the texts shed light on how far diverted our quest for righteousness can become when we rely on our own works. Scripture begs us to look for God’s righteousness, no matter how difficult it may be for us to perceive, and to leave behind our own empty gestures and intentions. There is opportunity in Lent to let our prayers be confessional in that we can name before God the ways in which we have turned to our own will and desires. However, our intercessions remain the means by which we call out to God for holy work to be done in the world and not just in ourselves. Therefore, we might not only confess our shortcomings but also ask God to turn us again into the flow of righteousness and to make our words and actions reflect God’s redeeming work.

    The season of Lent culminates in the liturgy of the Passion. In the Passion readings we hear the things that God has desired for us all along: the faithful obedience of the suffering servant, an honest naming of the pain and distress that the psalmist has endured, a poetic description of Christ’s self-emptying on the cross, and an ultimate discovery of our life, not by our own fulfilling of God’s commandments, but in the death of God’s Anointed One. Such immersion in our life in Christ may give shape to our prayers throughout the entire season of Lent. How might we beg God to stir up faithful obedience in us as God did in Abraham? How can we encourage such honest dialogue about the pain of the world as Jesus had with the woman at the well, and as there was between Moses and the refugees of the exodus? How might we ask God to turn us again into the flow of righteousness, from trusting in our own works to trusting in God’s work that allows us to empty ourselves for the sake of our human siblings and all of creation? How could we focus on looking for God’s life in the world in the most unexpected of people and places, finding it even where death’s shadow looms largest, like the graves of Lazarus and Jesus? For it is at the grave where we are unmistakably bound to God in Christ, who is prepared to lead us into the new life for which we pray.

    Assembly Song

    As a season of baptismal preparation, Lent invites us to stock our assemblies’ voices, minds, and hearts with images that will be brought into relief around the font at the Vigil of Easter. Though we begin this journey to life-giving waters with stark reminders of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season is not just about sackcloth and ashes, nor is it enough to sing only of these things. Rather, as we are reminded in the preceding paragraphs, this year’s Lenten texts overflow with contrasts and dichotomies that mark the baptismal life.

    As for any season, important questions must inform choices for each assembly—its people, space, gifts, location, and surrounding community. What texts, styles, and leadership choices emphasize Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in our respective contexts? What suggests that the season is a pilgrimage, a forty-day journey through the Lenten wilderness toward the font? What images, nouns, and active verbs are suggested by seasonal texts such as the prayer after communion (ELW, p. 65) or the prayers of the day? Likewise, what songs draw attention to lectionary images such as the dust of earth mixed with oil on Ash Wednesday as a sign of mortality, or the dust of earth mixed with spit that heals the blind man (Lent 4)? What shall we sing while the culture around us sells Easter candy and flowers even as we hear of dry bones and stinking bodies (Lent 5)? Are there familiar hymns or songs that would be useful to repeat weekly in order to maintain or deepen the season’s focus? For example, the stanzas of “Tree of Life and awesome mystery” (ELW 334) are especially appropriate for the Lenten Sundays of year A. In addition, the desert and water imagery in the hymn “O God, with hope I enter in” from Susan Palo Cherwien’s collection Come, Beloved of the Maker is worthy of repetition throughout the season.

    ?Assembly song should not only direct attention to these words and images but also steer attention toward the justice, mercy, and peace that sprout from baptismal calling. Look beyond the “Lent” section of the hymnal (ELW 319–343) to other seasonal emphases such as “Holy Baptism” (ELW 442–459), “Grace, Faith” (ELW 587–598), “Justice, Peace” (ELW 705–729), “Prayer” (ELW 741–754), or “Trust, Guidance” (ELW 755–795) and consider the wealth of images related to exile, wandering, longing, promise, and trust in spirituals from the African American tradition.

    Like the texts of hymns and songs, leadership and musical style can also reflect themes of the season. Would unaccompanied singing or simpler accompaniments such as a drone or a single melody instrument amplify seasonal ideas of focus or restraint? What styles or accompaniment choices might communicate (sonically) the dryness of the desert through which the Lenten pilgrimage takes place? Might postludes, organ Zimbelsterns, or other festive accoutrements remain buried with our alleluias until the Vigil of Easter? Perhaps the season’s psalms can be chanted without refrains, chanted on a single pitch instead of using a psalm tone, or chanted without accompaniment with a single bell tone between verses. Or, in place of the Kyrie, chant the Great Litany (ELW 238) at the beginning of each service.

    Finally, it may be helpful to review the guidance and suggestions in sources such as Keeping Time (pp. 83–93), Worship Guidebook for Lent and the Three Days (pp. 4–91), and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (pp. 247–257).

    Worship Space

    The church’s environment can help set the tone for the liturgies during the season of Lent. Furniture, fabric, plants, natural elements, art, windows, banners, and light can be used to display themes from the scriptures. In Lent we experience barrenness like a desert, the dry bones in the valley, the darkness of questioning faith, and the despair of temptation in the wilderness. Gone are the exquisite fabrics, the fresh flowers, and the opulence of decor.

    The nave’s space in Lent should be sparse, with most decor stored away for this season. This unadorned setting can be accomplished by a thorough decluttering, a spring cleaning of the space. Walk through your church’s front doors, through your narthex, and into the nave of your church with the eyes of a visitor. Ask what furniture, framed items, decorations, bulletin boards, or other items are necessary and welcoming for this time of year. Rid out what doesn’t belong; find places in storage for things you will use in different seasons. Do all precious or historical items need to be in view all year long? A decision may be made to store away some display items to then be brought out of storage on a seasonal cycle. An environment team may choose to leave the entryway or narthex as is and focus on the nave for the decluttering. In all things, show hospitality. If the narthex is full of items, consider arranging themed areas, such as spaces for announcements, worship schedules, and visitor information, in an organized and hospitable way. Leave what is necessary and beautiful.

    Every church space or nave is different, so it is important to discover what will work best in your context. The permanent physical space and floor plan will inform the placement of temporary, seasonal decorations. Some spaces have permanent features that teams need to work with creatively.

    If the space has a piece of art, an architectural feature, or a stained-glass window depicting one of the scripture stories in Lent, this feature can be highlighted for worshipers. Visually specify one cross in the space as a focal point and add a purple fabric drape if desired. Perhaps a large stone vase with bare branches could grace the area near the cross. If there are many crosses, be encouraged to store some away. You may decide to veil items that cannot be removed. Any fabrics you use are best if natural, even coarse, not satiny or glossy. Austerity is a key word for Lent.

    Artists and children can contribute to the Lenten environment. Children could make pictures from the scripture stories about Lazarus, the man born blind, or the Samaritan woman. This artwork could be featured as bulletin covers or a grouping of framed art in the entryway. If image projection is an option in the worship space, obtain traditional and modern fine art, to be illuminated during the scripture readings.

    A fabric drape could enhance a doorway. On some weeks, add branches from native trees. A series of thin, wispy fabric banners in dark colors could suggest a desert or wilderness. Communion ware of local pottery could be used seasonally. Don’t try to recreate Jerusalem in the first century; that is to say, don’t pretend we are back in Jesus’ time through decor. In the worship environment, let God’s word be living—past, present, and future. Choose the best, most beautiful, most natural elements available.

    Seasonal Checklist

    So much happens during Lent and Holy Week that planning in advance is essential. Consider this checklist along with the checklist for the Three Days (p. 139). One helpful strategy for managing time and energy is to think about where you are going to focus your creative attention this year and what practices or traditions you will carry over from previous years.

    •  Review the liturgies for Ash Wednesday and the Sunday of the Passion in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Plan rehearsals for these days and arrange for worship leaders, readers, musicians, liturgical artists, and technicians to be there.
    •  Gather or order worship participation leaflets for Ash Wednesday, the Sunday of the Passion, and the liturgies of Holy Week. Leaflets can be ordered from Augsburg Fortress.
    •  Gather or order ritual elements: ashes, palms, anointing oil. Consider making the switch to eco-palms or use locally available branches (already on the ground).
    •  If you have a procession with palms on the Sunday of the Passion, consider how those with physical disabilities may participate in the procession or be seated ahead of time.
    •  If you are making a change in the musical setting for the liturgy in Lent, alert the musicians and those responsible for preparing printed or projected worship aids early so they can adequately prepare for that transition. Extra proofreading for the first worship folder or projected materials may be needed, as well as extra time for musicians and worship leaders to learn and practice new parts.
    •  Arrange for musicians, vocal groups, and soloists to support the assembly’s singing throughout Lent, the Three Days, and Easter.
    •  If your congregation has a catechumenal ministry, review the various Lenten rites and determine how they will be introduced and conducted during Sunday worship.
    •  Confirm any plans for Easter baptisms.


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