Did you know?
Lent is part of a recovery of ancient Christian practice. The recovery of Lent was not simply about re-syncing our current calendars with more ancient ones. Instead, it was primarily about recovering the church's mission of discipling people in the way of Jesus, and realigning our worship practices to support that mission.
That purpose became obscured by medieval innovations in the calendar and lectionaries that followed the demise of what had been the church's primary means of offering such intensive discipling -- the three-year (at least!) catechumenate. Lent formed the "home stretch" of final preparation of candidates for baptism after three years of learning how to pray, how to listen to and learn from Scripture, how to care for the poor, the sick, and the orphans, how to care for and advocate for the needs of older people, and how to overcome addictive patterns in their lives, among other things.
All of this ongoing training made sure candidates for baptism could respond to the baptismal questions with deep integrity. Those questions, in their most ancient form, were "Do you renounce Satan and all his works? Do you confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord?," and, through taking on the Apostles' Creed, "Do you entrust yourself fully to the Triune God and the church which confesses and lives by the grace and power of this God?" Our own baptismal covenant and vows have their origins in these ancient vows and practices.
But when the three-year catechumenate itself was first compressed to just these forty days (as early as 387 in Syria) and then all but disappeared entirely across most of the former Roman Empire by the sixth century, replaced by a hodge-podge of practices later known as "confirmation" with a focus more on doctrine than living the way of Jesus, the weeks of Lent started being used for another purpose-- a season of fasting and penitence with constant reminders of the suffering of Jesus along the way. This was fairly universally established in the West by the eighth century. In other words, Lent was no longer about discipling others in the way of Jesus, but rather about trying to discipline ourselves for our sins, if only for these forty days. It was this medieval practice of Lent, disconnected from any serious effort to disciple newcomers or others in the way of Jesus, that continued to inform Lenten lectionaries and practices in the West until Vatican II.
[Vatican II sparked liturgical renewal (the recovery of ancient worship practices) in both Catholic and Protestant churches. This leads to the following recovered understanding of Lent.]
Lent is a forty-day season of fasting and spiritual preparation intended to help congregations accompany candidates for baptism during a "home stretch" in practices, ritual and disciplines critical to living in the way of Jesus. Lent proper begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent proper ends on Palm/Passion Sunday, a day that in turn inaugurates Holy Week. Holy Week is a time of more intense fasting, reading, and prayers in which we pay particular attention to the final days, suffering, and execution of Jesus. [This culminates in] "The Three Days"-- Maundy Thursday (focus on footwashing and the new commandment, and not as much on the institution of the Lord's Supper), Good Friday (the passion from John's gospel, not the Seven Last Words, a medieval devotional practice), Holy Saturday (a service or vigil of silence, readings and prayer), and The Great Vigil of Easter (Saturday after sundown). The Great Vigil is the first service of Easter, pulling out all the stops, with fire, word, bath and meal. It is at the Vigil, historically that candidates completing their three-year preparation cycle with this Lent would have been baptized -- and today, in many churches, including our own, are as well! After their baptism, they would receive -- indeed see!-- Holy Communion for the first time.
Lent and Holy Week are thus all about discipling people in the way of Jesus. During Lent, we focus on core stories and practices of Jesus' ministry. During Holy week, we focus intensely on his last days, his execution, his burial, and finally, with the Great Vigil, his resurrection.
What I hope is that we may all see how much richer our lives may be-- not only in worship but especially in our discipleship to Jesus-- if we take up the tasks that this apparently small (if to some uncomfortable) recovery of a more ancient liturgical calendar invites.
Excerpted from “Why Palm/Passion Sunday and Not Just Palm Sunday?” by Taylor Burton-Edwards, Copyright (c) Discipleship Ministries. Read the full article here: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/why-palmpassion-sunday-and-not-just-palm-sunday