Lent Worship Practices Inspired by the Early Church
The season of Lent, the forty days (minus Sundays) prior to Easter, apparently began as a time for training and discipleship, especially as a time of preparing candidates for baptism at Easter. Lent also became a time of spiritual preparation and renewal for all the faithful as they gave special attention to the ministry and passion of Christ. Although Lent has often been associated with such devotional practices as self-denial, fasting, self-examination, and penitence, it should be remembered that all of these Lent worship practices are means to an end; they are meant to help us focus on what it means to be followers of Christ. It is when such practices become ends in themselves that their purpose is lost.
Many of the ancient worship practices of the church serve a similar function--and are subject to the same danger. If they become ends in themselves they are empty idols; as means to an end they become capable of drawing us deeper into the presence of God.
There are several ancient practices of the church that may enhance your worship experience during Lent. Here is a brief description of three of these Lent worship practices: the imposition of ashes, stripping the sanctuary, and the Solemn Reproaches of the Cross. For more complete discussion of these and other services, consult Book of Common Worship (Westminster John Knox, 1993) or The New Handbook of the Christian Year (Abingdon, 1992).
The Imposition of Ashes
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. The biblical witness is found in the opening epic of the human story: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). In the tenth century the use of ashes was employed to visibly remind worshipers of their mortality as they began their Lenten "watch by the cross."
This first day of Lent reminds Christians (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A #88) that two things are involved in genuine repentance: "the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new." The way to Easter is the way of the cross. Romans 6:3 reads, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" New life with Christ involves a daily surrendering of the old life. The first step of this Lenten journey invites us to acknowledge our mortality and our sinfulness by the imposition of ashes.
Traditionally, the ashes for the service are prepared (well ahead of time) by burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. The ashes should be ground to a fine powder and mixed in a shallow bowl with a little water or oil. (It is also helpful to have a damp towel available for the hands of those who impose ashes.) As each worshiper comes forward, the ashes are imposed on the forehead making the sign of the cross with the thumb and repeating the words of Genesis 3:19: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The imposition of ashes is often preceded by a call to confession and followed by a litany of penitence or a corporate prayer of confession, calling to mind the words of Job, "I...repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6).
Imposition of ashes can be a deeply moving, though sobering, experience. Because it is likely to be new and unfamiliar to many people in the Reformed Church, care should be taken in introducing the practice and in preparing the congregation for their participation. There should be adequate explanation and ample opportunity for discussion and decision by the worship committee and consistory. If the consistory decides to include imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service, no worshiper should feel compelled to come forward to receive ashes, nor should the practice be seen as a way of displaying one's piety before others. It is simply a vivid and tangible reminder of our sinfulness and mortality and of our utter dependence upon the grace of God and the power of Christ's resurrection.
Stripping the Sanctuary
The service for Maundy Thursday can conclude with the stripping of the sanctuary, which is done in absolute silence and in an unhurried, orderly fashion. The practice dates from the seventh century and originally served the practical purpose of cleaning the sanctuary in preparation for Easter, when all things are made new. In time, however, the practice became ceremonial in its own right.
In silence and in shadows, communion vessels, table cloths, pulpit and lectern hangings, banners, candles, and all other decorative and liturgical objects are sensitively removed, thus dramatizing the desolation, abandonment, and darkness of the passion and death of our Lord. The sanctuary remains bare until the beginning of the Easter celebration. Ordinarily there is neither a blessing nor a postlude at the conclusion of the service. The church remains in semi-darkness, and all worshipers exit in silence. Symbolically, Christ, stripped of his power and glory, is now in the hands of his captors.
The Solemn Reproaches of the Cross
The Solemn Reproaches is an ancient text of western Christendom associated with Good Friday; it comes at the conclusion of the service. The reproaches follow the pattern of Psalm 78, which rehearses God's continuing acts of faithfulness and Israel's repeated rebellion. The words of the first reproach are:
O my people, O my church,
What have I done to you, or in what have I offended you?
Testify against me.
I led you forth from the land of
Egypt and delivered you by
the water of baptism, but
you have prepared a
cross for your Savior.
Each of the succeeding reproaches follows a similar pattern, calling to mind God's saving acts and concluding with the same words: "but you have prepared a cross for your Savior." Following each reproach the congregation responds with a prayer for mercy, either simply "Lord have mercy upon us" or the traditional Trisagion ("the thrice holy") "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy upon us." The service may then conclude with an appropriate hymn or spiritual, and the worshipers depart in silence.
A Final Word
Liturgy works when it does not call attention to itself but acts as a servant, drawing us into the presence of God. Good liturgy is a window to the holy. Something is amiss if we notice only the window and ignore the scene beyond. Carefully preparing and rehearsing for a worship service is like cleaning a window. When the congregation gathers for worship, the focus should be on Christ and not on choreography. "Holy ceremony" serves as a vehicle, not an obstacle, to the Holy Spirit. Worship planners and leaders should remember the words of John Calvin: "Wherever there is great ostentation of ceremony, sincerity of heart is rare indeed."
John Paarlberg is pastor of First Church in Albany. This article originally appeared in Servant Leaders, Winter 1996, Volume One, Number Four.