The Lutheran Difference

The sixteenth century liturgical reforms of Martin Luther, in a purposed attempt to recover the Gospel in Word and Sacrament ministry, impacted Lent directly. The Lutheran reform of Lent consisted chiefly in Luther's rejection of works of satisfaction in the sacrament of penance which were traditionally assigned to the penitent during the Lenten season to obtain God's forgiveness. The reform of the sacrament of penance shifted the onus from the "doing" of the penitent (works of satisfaction) to the absolution of God (Word of forgiveness). Or, put differently, the shift was from the Law to the Gospel. The reform in substance yielded a reform in reference, too: "Holy Absolution" displaced "doing penance". The sacrament of Holy Absolution emphasized what Christ does for us rather than what we do for forgiveness. Therefore, Lent was reoriented, shifting the focus from our fasting to the accomplishments of Christ on Good Friday and Easter morning.[1]

Practically speaking, the obligation to fast and other associated Lenten rigors stipulated by Canon Law were replaced with Christian liberty to participate in the Lenten fast because of a desire to be close to God, to enhance faith in Christ and to cultivate greater habits of love for the neighbor. Luther comments on how the Church cannot demand your participation, as if your forgiveness from Christ depended upon it. Likewise, medieval mysticism which intimated that austerity of contrition and extreme self-denial corresponded to the degree one would be forgiven, were replaced with Gospel proclamation and priestly obligation. Trust in the merit of Christ's atonement rather than your earnestness to merit forgiveness was the message championed from Wittenberg.

Luther also underscored the Christus Victor (Victorious Christ) theological motif taught by St. Paul in his New Testament epistles. The Passion of Christ is not an occasion for us to pity poor Jesus, who ignominiously died on the Cross. Rather, the Passion of Christ functions as Law (in that it is our treasonous sin which condemned Him) and Gospel (in that by His Passion He won victory for us over sin). That Gospel aspect is pure victory. And victories are meant to be celebrated. The Cross, then, is the place of divine victory, being of one piece with the resurrection of our Lord. Our contrition and devotion during Lent needed to be distinguished from the redeeming events of Holy Week. Recent liturgical reforms in both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions have attempted to underscore this important distinction. Even Good Friday ought to sound a note, however minor, of triumph.

The Passion of Christ functions as Law (in that it is our treasonous sin which condemned Him) and Gospel (in that by His Passion He won victory for us over sin).

Today, we can experience these changes in the Lutheran Service Book (LSB) as it is used for worship at this time of year. Since the Lenten season was itself a preparation for Easter, it was considered theologically inappropriate to observe a preparatory season for Lent itself. So, pre-Lent preparation was abandoned. Accordingly, the three preparatory Sundays have been eliminated from the Church Calendar and the season of Epiphany lengthened to include them (as a result there may be as many as nine Sundays after the Epiphany). The liturgical color for the First, Second, and Last Sundays after the Epiphany (precluding Candlemass and Transfiguration) is white. The other Sundays are green. There is also a full set of lessons in the Lectionary for Lent and Holy Week, though mid-week Lenten services are neglected in this respect.

Times Have Changed

Whether for good or for ill, it is obvious how current Lenten observances are only a pale imitation of former ages. Lent is to be understood as a time to reflect on Baptism and its basis in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is, therefore, a time for rebirth and renewal in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Consequently, "The consideration of the suffering and death of Christ is primarily concentrated in the week beginning with the Sunday of the Passion (popularly called Palm Sunday)."[2]

This brief history shows us there are several contemporary misunderstandings regarding the nature of Lent. The practices of omitting alleluias on the Sundays in Lent, the omission of the Gloria in Excelsis, and the use of purple paraments absorb Sundays into the life of the penitent rather than allowing the penitent into the life of Sunday. Edward T. Horn echoes these sentiments when he writes: “In the West the penitential character of the Lenten season has spilled over the Sundays and obscured their true nature as commemorations of resurrection.”[3]

Lent is to be understood as a time to reflect on Baptism and its basis in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Lutheran commentator, Fred H. Lindemann, describes the purposes of Lent in a reflection on Romans 6:4:

"The basic purpose was the preparation for the rising to newness of life at Easter. This is the purpose of the Lutheran observance as reflected in the liturgy of the first four Sundays in Lent. All observances must aim at permanent improvement of the Christian life. Lent is the time for practice and training in virtues and self-denial that are to be permanent and habitual in the renewed life after Easter. The temporary interruption of some selfish habit for the limited period of Lent, with the intention of resuming the old habit after Easter, should not be encouraged… There is an element of danger in temporary observances. The spirit of work-righteousness or of appeasement may readily inject itself. Outward observances have their value, but to prevent a disastrous Lent the emphasis should be placed on the fact that Lent is a season for training in practices and virtues that are to be habitual and permanent in the life that is to be renewed at Easter."[4]

Lindemann made his point over sixty years ago, but popular piety compounded by cultural stereotyping has only reinforced our aberrant expectations of the Lenten season.

It will be interesting to see how things develop this year, as I myself have embraced a lapsed Lenten mindset, seeing it as preparing me for Good Friday as opposed to preparation for the resurrection life of Easter. Indeed, I have known no other way and have led the congregation in the same. An irony, then, may be our giving up the old habit of Lent for the newness it is supposed to bring. Being out of step with skewed societal expectations may be preferred to being out of theological and liturgical step. Perhaps this year we shall see Lent reaching more toward Easter and tethered to the resurrection then the economy-car style tradition which simply terminates in Good Friday. Undeniable, at the least, is the call and perhaps liturgical need to restore the inherited sanctifying significance of Lent, which again after all means "spring", the season after winter. Luther Reed well articulates our liturgical crossroads:

"Whether we fully realize it or not, the Church has made a major shift in emphasis from the sense of joy and triumph felt by the early Christians in the long celebration of Eastertide to the somber contemplation of Christ's suffering and death and the subjective stress upon personal penitence and self-discipline which will pervade the lengthy observance of Lententide. In this, as well as other matters, we might well discard the garments of mourning and put on again the robes of victory and rejoicing worn by the pre-Roman church. The Lutheran observance of Lent is commemorative and emulative as well as penitential. It regards the season as a time of special spiritual opportunity to contemplate the Passion of Christ as an incentive for self-examination, repentance, and growth in faith and grace."[5]

May the Lord our God grant us a share in His triumph and renewal this Lententide.