Lent: Why do we do the things we do?
If you’re new to the Anglican Church, don’t get spooked by our Lenten worship service. Yes, we do a lot of kneeling and bowing and have some unfamiliar rituals, but there is a reason for it all. We do these things because they have a Biblical foundation and because we believe our liturgy helps shape hearts for Christ. Lent, the season stretching between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day, can seem especially odd but has some wonderful traditions.
Lent, which comes from an ancient Anglo-Saxon word, “Lencten”, simply means “spring”. It is a forty-day period (this doesn’t count Sundays; they are always feast days because they celebrate the Resurrection) which reflects the forty days that our Lord spent in the wilderness after His baptism. In the wilderness Jesus was tempted by Satan, and had to wrestle with how He would live out his ministry in the world. Would He give into the temptations of Satan to be what the world wanted Him to be, or would He yield only to the Spirit of God? We seek to follow in His footsteps, honestly struggling with our own temptations, and trying to live into our baptismal call.
We wear purple in Lent because our Lord was arrayed in a purple robe in the midst of His passion; purple reminds us of His suffering and the solemnity of this season. We begin our liturgy with the tolling of bells. This is a sixteenth century practice called the “Angelus”; three sets of three tolls followed by a set of nine tolls represent prayers said in honor of the Trinity. After the Angelus we say the “Decalogue”, the Ten Commandments. This comes at the beginning of the service to set the clear tone of Lent, which is a call to repentance and faithfulness to God’s Law. The Commandments are followed by the Confession of Sin, which usually comes later in the service, but is at the beginning in Lent. Then, we sing the Kyrie: Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison”, which means “Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy”. One of the earliest penitential supplications used in the Christian Church, it comes from the Old Testament.
Much of the rest of the service follows our normal form. The “Liturgy of the Word” contains our lessons from Scripture. We read Scripture in a three-year cycle; if you came to church every Sunday for three years you would hear all the major themes of the Bible, and virtually the whole of Scripture read. After the sermon, we celebrate God’s grace poured out for us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the pinnacle and purpose of the service. All the words that come before are used to prepare our hearts that we might be ready to receive God’s grace into our bodies at the Communion Table. During Lent we use Rite I for the service. This is an alternative form that is found in the Book of Common Prayer , very old, a bit stilted in language (all those “thees” and “thous”), but beautifully penitential. Another difference in Lent is the Rite I use of “The Prayer of Humble Access” which comes right after “The Breaking of Bread”. This prayer dates back to the sixteenth century English prayer book, and reminds us of our proper contrition before Almighty God, and of His great mercy toward us.
You’ll also notice that in Lent we don’t ring joyful bells, we replace altar flowers with greenery only, and we don’t say “alleluia”. In addition, neither the church nor individual parishioners should have celebratory gatherings, including weddings and lavish parties, during Lent. This is a time to step back from our frantic secular lives, listen to the voice of God, and honor the sacrifice of His son, our Lord.
Lent is a time for fasting, self-examination, prayer, and self-denial. Sometimes people choose to give something up for Lent ; examples are fasting for one meal a week, or giving up television. Perhaps you could take something on such as serving the poor or visiting a nursing home. In either case, the purpose is to identify, in any small way, with the sacrifice of our Lord and His love for the whole world.
The really wonderful thing is that after Holy Week, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Easter arrives in resounding joy! The alleluias, the flowers, the bells and celebrations are all back in full force! And how much more joyful it is because we’ve kept a Holy Lent!