The services offered at churches around the world during Lent contain some of the most experiential theology you will ever encounter. What I mean by that is that during these services churches employ a number of different props, sounds, lighting and worship practices which are meant to draw the worshiper into the season of the church year. These things are not mandated by scripture by any means but they have become the tradition of many churches and have become engrained in their very practice. With any practice however though it must always, always, match up with the doctrine of the church. Therefore I seek to explain some of the sights and sounds of the church you will or have already experienced the next forty days and through Holy Week.
The celebration of Lent truly began in the 4th century. During this time Christianity saw a lot of things happen. It was then that believers were able to live out their faith and profess their faith without recognized fear of being arrested and martyred for that faith. It was during this time of religious freedom, if you will, that organized church truly began. And as a way to teach the faith and highlight the important aspects of Christ’s life church seasons were created to help. Lent was one of the first seasons to come into existence. Lent teaches us penitence in face of Christ’s impending death on the cross. It is a period of self-examination. It’s a time when we can examine our sinfulness as it stands juxtaposed over and against the payment for that sin. Christ’s death on the cross. Also during these early years of Christianity, Lent stood as the time when new converts to the faith were instructed and taught. Something we in the Lutheran Church call Catechism or catechesis, meaning instruction. So new believers were taught the faith and were then able to commune at the altar on Easter Sunday. So really at its outset, Lent, was at its core a believers self-examination as to why they were Christian. Why they believed? What that belief was really about. No for the next 40 days churches have the ability to return to this time in history. Lent gives us an opportunity to re-examine our faith. To re-examine what keeps us returning to church every week.
Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday. It’s obvious that the through-out Christendom churches decorated their sanctuaries with palms. Some take simple palm fronds and twist them into the shape of the cross. Others, like ours, use full palm branches. This is to symbolize the very palms that were thrown into the streets of Jerusalem. Palm Branches? Why Palm Branches. Psalm 118 speaks of this procession. It also speak of branches binding up the procession. Branches the symbol of peace. Jesus enters in like a king triumphant, but only in peace. The same palm branches we waved this Sunday will be burned and turned to ash, when we begin Lent next year.
Many churches celebrate a special service called Maundy Thursday. Starting with the very name, is it “Maunday” Thursday? Holy Thursday? It’s simply Maundy Thursday pronounced mawn-dee. Etymologically, the consensus is that “Maundy” comes from the Latin word Mandatum (itself from the verb Mandare), which is translated “commandment.” It’s further exrtrapolated that it was named this for the commandment Jesus gave during the last supper as it is recorded in the Gospel of John chapter 13.
John 13:34-35 English Standard Version (ESV)
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
More to the point of the evening is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the night that Christ instituted it. We hear the familiar words, “This is my Body, This is my Blood” We taste the familiar bread and wine. Yet for some reason it’s different tonight. It’s different because we know what lies ahead. As Christ leaves the upper room and heads to the garden, we know where this night ends. The service ends with the stripping of the Altar. The symbolic act meant to portray the destitute nature our savior entered for the sake of our sins being forgiven. The church is emptied of its beauty and splendor. The altar laid bare. We leave in silence knowing that in 24 hours we will find ourselves at the foot of the cross. The cross that Jesus died upon.
Above every other service during this Holy Week, Good Friday has always been maybe the most theatrical. You by now have noticed the color change. The cross is draped in black. Darkness is the theme. Because darkness is the opposite of light. Is the opposite of the presence of God. Good Friday is the service we remember when God the Son died. Candles are extinguished and the church is shrouded in darkness.The whole service is solemn. There is no confession and absolution. No offering. The Christ candle is extinguished and all the lights removed. The streptius, a loud bang is that auditory jolt which symbolizes the sealing of the tomb of Christ. Jesus has died. We leave in silence. But not before the glimmer of hope is rekindled. The Christ candle is returned. We still have the joy of Easter in the back of our minds. Even as the Christ candle is removed from the sanctuary it is almost immediately returned. We know that Christ is not dead. We know that he is risen. We leave in silence, awaiting the joy of Sunday morning.
Now to the point of all this amazing history and practice in our churches. When it comes to Lent there is not a more appropriate season to personify what everyone has going on in their lives right now. We live in uncertain times and often conflicting times. Lent and Holy Week and Easter bring us back to the reasons we believe. Our communities and our families are wrought full of pain and grief. Despair is something we have all encountered. Lent and Easter and everything in between is the answer to that despair. When we examine ourselves and find that we are broken people, it’s the cross which provides the answer. When we look out at our world and see that it too is broken and full of sin, it’s the cross which provides the answer. And yes, it is only the death of Jesus on that cross which provides the answer. This Lenten season, don’t let it be an imposition. Find yourself at the foot of the cross. At the feet of Christ who takes away your sin and despair and leaves you with peace.
The writer is the sole pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Sidney, Ohio.