Preparing for Lent (Year C)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2019, Year C, copyright © 2018 Augsburg Fortress.

Proclaiming the Resurrection and the Incarnation in Lent

“Christians proclaim the gospel, the euangelion, the good news . . . but what is that news? The news is that Jesus did not stay dead. The news is that Christ is risen . . . .” The Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen paused, and the room of more than three hundred present for the TriSynodical Fall Theological Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, paused with her. Finally, one lone voice from the crowd called out tentatively: “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” It was September, and the crowd was a bit rusty. The Easter proclamation felt odd at first, out of its usual context. Madsen repeated the call and response, and urged the assembly to repeat it, again and again, underscoring how we are called as Christians to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ not only on Easter Sunday but on every Sunday.

Many congregations will bury the word alleluia to mark the beginning of Lent (see the seasonal rites for the time after Epiphany for suggestions about how to do this). Whether your congregation chooses to do this or not, we know that Lent is not a time to bury Jesus. Jesus is not dead. The newsworthy event—Jesus died and did not stay dead—is the good news we are continually called to share. The world-inverting miracle of the incarnation, “God-with-us”—which we might associate more with Advent or Christmas—also has deep resonance in these forty days.

Christ is risen and the season of Lent also deserves to be its own thing. It’s the same good news with the emphasis on a different syllable. A grieving mom spoke of how she tried to go to church at Christmas but couldn’t bear the overwhelming imagery of baby-related joy, backed up by cheerful music and tinsel everywhere. When she returned to church in Lent, “the church looked how I felt: bruised.” She decided she was ready to return to church. In Lent she could hear, see, and sing the incarnation and resurrection hope in a way that also acknowledged the reality of loss and death. Lent is a time when everything we do in worship—readings, music, colors, liturgical arts—can remind us simultaneously of the reality of death, the reality of resurrection life, and Jesus’ experience of life, death, and resurrection life with us. As Bishop Guy Erwin said at the same Iowa TriSynodical conference, “Our faith is death-defying: it takes death seriously, and faces it unflinchingly.”

Lectionary Reflections: Take the grace challenge

We expect the word grace to convey crucial theological content, which may or not be conveyed when we use the word in our preaching and teaching. Rev. Karoline Lewis, Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, challenges working preachers to consider taking a break from using the word grace in sermons. She advocates using examples from scripture to show God’s work in the world, rather than using one word (grace or even gospel) to tell about it. In Lent, year C, we have readings with parables that touch on themes of fairness and abundance, like Luke 13:1-9 (the parable of the barren fig tree) and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother, and the party-throwing father). The lectionary in Lent also gives us the image of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem and yearning to gather and protect it, hen-like (Luke 13:31-35), and then having his feet exuberantly, lavishly anointed by Mary (John 12:1-8). These readings offer opportunities to show God’s abundant love by exploring what’s going on, rather than expecting the word grace to do the theological heavy lifting for us.

Consider taking on the challenge of talking about God’s activity as much as possible without using the word grace. If you decide to really go for it, make it the topic of your monthly newsletter article and invite the congregation to join you in the challenge. Reflect on your experience at the end of the season and invite others’ reflections too. How did your understanding of grace change?

Lectionary Reflections: Fasting and feasting

The starkness we often associate with Lent is contrasted with images of abundance in the readings, particularly the party thrown by the joyful father, the oil used generously to anoint Jesus’ feet, and the manure piled high to coax life into the barren fig tree. Think about ways to observe both fasting and feasting in your Lenten worship life. How do people in your context fast during Lent? How do they feast? Every time we celebrate holy communion, it’s a feast and celebration. Might Wednesdays in Lent, a time when many congregations gather in the evening for a meal, be a day to explore the pattern of fasting and breaking the fast with a community feast? What would you do differently if you thought of Wednesday as a fast/feast day? If you have relationships with Muslim, Jewish, or Roman Catholic neighbors, learn from them about their patterns of fasting and feasting, noting how those practices build faith and community.

Lectionary Reflections: Catechumenal connections

If your congregation has a catechumenal ministry, consider studying the Lenten readings for year A every year in your catechumenal process or more fully exploring baptismal imagery in the readings for year C. The catechumenate returns to the early church origins of Lent as a time of preparation for baptism. It can also be used to renew congregations where most of the adults are already baptized as an intentional time of study and prayer resulting in affirmation of baptism. While the catechumenate reaches its most intense time of preparation during Lent, the process and preparations begin well before Lent. To learn more about the catechumenate, check out Go Make Disciples (Augsburg Fortress, 2012) or attend a training sponsored by the ecumenical organization Journey to Baptismal Living (previously known as the North American Association for the Catechumenate). Learn more at


Garrison Keillor’s “The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra” from A Prairie Home Companion did an amazing job of teaching generations of kids classical music by putting parody words to the tunes. Yet when the content of those parodies conflated small town/rural/upper Midwest/Northern European immigrant culture with Lutheran theology, the theology ended up not making very much sense. The public radio show has a new name, host, and location; still, if people outside the Lutheran world know anything about Lutherans at all, they might link Lutherans with dourness, shame-based theology, guilt, and casseroles. Lord, have mercy.

Many Lutherans do love Lent but not because of inherent theological sadism or masochism. Lent is loved for being a season where wilderness wanderings and lost-and-found stories get to the heart of a theology that is about God’s deep empathy and accompaniment in everything we experience as humans. Hymns about the liberating, incarnational accompaniment of God that would match well with the readings for year C include “The people walk” (ELW 706), “Lord Jesus, you shall be my song” (ELW 808), “When the poor ones” (ELW 725), and “Here, O Lord, your servants gather” (ELW 530).

Visual Environment

Liturgical arts in Lent help differentiate the season and set a tone that says, “God is with you in all times, even and especially in difficult times.” The grieving mom who said the church looked “bruised,” just like she felt, described plain purple cloth wall hangings and clear vases with arrangements of bare sticks and stones: beautiful and simple. Wilderness—a recurring theme in year C—may be a fruitful theme for liturgical artists.

Palm/Passion Sunday

Congregations that pair Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion have an opportunity to craft a worship service that is similar to the Easter Vigil in terms of movement, use of space, and hearing many voices/readers. Many congregations begin outside (if possible) on this day; if the weather doesn’t allow, try to have a backup plan that helps you gather in a part of the building other than the worship space. Consider the needs of people with mobility concerns when you gather and travel. Amplify the Luke 19:28-40 processional reading so people with hearing disabilities are included. Remember that chanting/singing the text is one form of amplification if microphones are not readily available, especially if this reading is proclaimed outdoors. The procession with palms can be accompanied by simple singing, handbells, and/or children and adults on handheld percussion instruments.

Arrival in the worship space physically and liturgically creates a pivot in the worship service—at this pivot point, a brief homily or children’s message is possible before transitioning into the Passion reading. Take care to avoid unintended anti-Semitism at the pivot point: this is not about the crowd changing their chant from “Hosanna” to “Crucify.” Both the procession and the passion reveal what it means to call Christ “King” and what kind of upside-down kingdom God has in mind. The long version of the reading is very effective when divided into smaller chunks, with each reading assigned to a different voice (and care given to variety in the voices). Instead of complete hymns or anthems between readings, short Taizé or Taizé-style refrains, a stanza or two of a hymn, or one short piece repeated after every reading provides smooth transitions, especially when readers have practiced being lined up and ready to go. “Jesus, remember me” (ELW 616) is especially appropriate in year C, as it is drawn from Luke’s version of the passion story.

Unlike Good Friday, Palm/Passion Sunday does not end with Jesus’ death but with the feast—holy communion. Joining together in the Apostles’ Creed after hearing the Passion reading is a powerful moment where fast and feast come together in a communal statement of faith, which becomes tangible in the meal we share.

Seasonal Checklist

As always, it’s helpful to plan ahead, particularly in this season where time seems to hurtle you straight into Holy Week. Taking time to plan Lent, the Three Days, and Easter together in advance will take some of the pressure off. One helpful practice may be to think about which pieces of that puzzle you are going to focus your creative, innovative attention on this year and which pieces you are going to enjoy as traditions carrying over from previous years.

  •  How long has it been since your congregation examined its alleluia-burying ritual? Well before the season begins, start getting to the “why” behind your Lenten practices. Decide which ones to keep and which to do differently based on the meaning being conveyed not only to longtime members but to visitors and those newer to the worshiping community.
  •  A conference-wide round-robin for Wednesday evening worship is a wonderful way to get to know people and congregations throughout your conference, work together with colleagues to choose a preaching theme, and end up only having to prepare one sermon for all of the Wednesdays in Lent. Each week the pastor travels to a different congregation in the conference. Every congregation hosts its own worship service (meal optional) as usual, with members of the congregation leading worship and the guest pastor preaching.
  •  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.
  •  Review the liturgies for Ash Wednesday and Palm/Passion Sunday. Plan rehearsals for these days and arrange for worship leaders, readers, musicians, liturgical artists, and technicians to be there.
  •  Gather simple fabrics or natural materials for any desired visual elements in the worship space.
  •  Order ritual elements: ashes, palms, anointing oil. Consider making the switch to eco-palms ( or use locally available branches (already on the ground). Even if they are not palms, they will be branches you can wave, and they won’t have to be shipped to you.
  •  Arrange for musicians, vocal groups, and soloists to support the assembly’s singing throughout Lent, the Three Days, and Easter.



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