Our Need for Lent

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A truly Lenten mindset sees the season as preparatory for the resurrection life of Easter as opposed to the mortification of Good Friday.

The sixteenth century liturgical reforms of Martin Luther, in an attempt to recover the gospel in Word and Sacrament ministry, impacted Lent directly. The Lutheran reform of Lent chiefly consisted in Luther's rejection of works of satisfaction in the sacrament of penance (i.e., Holy Absolution) which were traditionally assigned to the penitent during the Lenten season in order 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 guilt remitting absolution of God (Word of forgiveness). Put differently, the shift was from law to gospel. The reform in substance yielded a reform in reference, too: “Holy Absolution” displaced and rebranded “doing penance.” The sacrament of Holy Absolution emphasized what Christ does for us and to us rather than what we do to garner forgiveness. Lent thus was reoriented, shifting the focus from our fasting (as important as that might be) to the accomplishments of Christ on Good Friday and Easter morning. [1]

Practically speaking, the obligation to fast, along with 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 neighbor, all of which factored into the transformation of the baptized. The Church, said Luther, cannot demand your participation as if your forgiveness of Christ depended upon it. Simply put, you cannot make satisfaction for your sins — only Jesus can and did. Faith trusts in him. Necessitating standards of satisfaction, along with scrutinizing contrition from attrition, put an obstacle of detour — law and works — in the road of a gospel sacrament and there to Christ himself. Likewise, the medieval mysticism that posited a calculus of forgiveness, whereby austerity of contrition and extreme self-denial corresponded degrees of forgiven, were replaced by gospel proclamation and priestly obligation to assuage guilt (according to John 20:22-23; Matt. 10:6-8). Trust in the merit of Christ’s atonement rather than your earnestness to merit forgiveness was the message championed from Wittenberg.

Lent was reoriented, shifting the focus from our fasting (as important as that might be) to the accomplishments of Christ on Good Friday and Easter morning.

Luther also underscored the Christus Victor (the Victorious Christ) soteriological motif taught by Saint 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. Instead, the theme of Christus Victor articulates the Passion of Christ as a double helix accomplishment of Jesus. The Passion is viewed at once as a law achievement (in that it is our treasonous sin that condemns him to perfect suffering and obedience unto death on the cross) and at the same time gospel achievement (in that by his Passion he won victory for us over sin by blood atonement that expiated and substitution that propitiates). Through this double helix, the kingdom of God becomes a this-world reality: God rules in Jesus through the forgiveness of sins. The crucifixion of the Son of God is pure victory. And victories are meant to be celebrated. 

Luther believed that it was fitting that our contrition and devotion during Lent be distinguished from the redeeming events of Holy Week.

The Cross is the place of divine victory, being of one piece with the resurrection of our Lord. The enduring image of this motif has been the iconographic robed-and-resurrected Jesus, replete with diadem (not a crown of thorns), positioned on the cross, albeit without hands and feet impaled but free, arms slightly elevated in victory and at the same time summoning all the world to himself. Luther loved this image and countless generations of Lutherans likewise treasure it, which is why many sanctuaries are dignified by its presence, usually with the Virgin Mary and Saint John flanking the cross, giving deference and glory to the victorious Christ.

Luther believed that it was fitting that our contrition and devotion during Lent 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 by a recognition of Christus Victor. Consequently, even the Good Friday Tenebrae sounds a note of triumph — Jesus wins salvation on the cross (Rom. 4:25). 

Times Have Changed

Lent is to be understood as a time to reflect on one’s baptism, and its basis in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a time for rebirth and a 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] Lent brings us to that momentous week, by habituating resurrection life in the here and now, while at the same time mortifying sin. Lent purposes to cultivate in us patterns of habit emergent from, inspired by, and conforming to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Striving during Lent to live as resurrection people already as a principle theme of the season, exposes a number of 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 the color purple, absorb Sundays into the life of the penitent rather than allowing the penitent into the life of Sunday. Sunday fuels our resurrection life by extolling and ingesting the Resurrected One. Fast during the weekdays, feast on the day of resurrection. 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]

Correction and reorientation of Lent require a concerted effort if a proper distinction between law and gospel are to be maintained, as well as the purpose and message of Lenten fasts and their Sunday reprieve. 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 altered expectations of the Lenten season. 

A truly Lenten mindset sees the season as preparatory for the resurrection life of Easter as opposed to the mortification of Good Friday. An irony, then, may be parishes giving up their old habits and tropes of Lent for the newness it is supposed to bring. Perhaps this year we shall see Lent reaching more toward Easter and tethered to the resurrection, than the quadragesimal tradition that terminates in Good Friday. At the very least, priests and parishioners will want to restore the sanctifying significance of Lent, which after all means “spring” — the season after winter. Luther Reed articulates our liturgical crossroads and the path that gives due honor to both Good Friday and the Resurrection of Our Lord:

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 that triumph and renewal this Lententide.

[1]  In the twentieth-century, the Roman Catholic Church articulates a more Lutheran understanding of Confession and Absolution, even renaming the “sacrament of penance” as the “sacrament of reconciliation.”
[2]  Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, The Manual on the Liturgy, Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis:Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), 24.
[3]  Edward T. Horn, The Christian Year: Days and Seasons of the Church (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 103.
[4]  Fred H. Lindemann, The Sermon and the Propers, Vol. 2, Pre-Lent to Pentecost (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 43-44.
[5]  Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1947, 1960), 491.