Happy Spring! BTW, you're gonna die.
The word "Lent" actually just means Spring. It derives from a Germanic root that means "long" and was applied to this time of year because the daylight hours are getting longer. Nothing religious about it. So how did we get a season associated with fasting, "giving up" stuff, and having ashes on your face on the first day of it? Here's the deal.
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
Those are the famous words from the liturgy for the imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross on your forehead on the first day of Lent, called Ash Wednesday. "Pulvis" in there is the Latin word for dust. It's the root of the English word "pulverise". To pulverise literally means to be turned into dust. Which is exactly what death does. It's going to pulverise me, you, and everyone and everything else.
Howzat for some good news?
And, that's not only living stuff, it's everything. Everything decays, everything loses its value over time. Go look at your car. Then look at its service record. Look at what you paid for it and what it's worth now. Or, speaking of paying for stuff, look at the money in your wallet or your bank statement. Both the money itself and the value given it are decaying; inflation.
Such is life. Such is even non-life. It's even measurable scientifically. That's called a half-life, which is the time it takes something to lose half its original value.
And such are the famous words from the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, or on Aschermittwoch, as they say in the original language of our beloved synod. We are dust, and unto dust we and everything else will return. Observable fact, no belief required, and we start right there.
And go where? Is that all there is? Is there actually nowhere to go, so, we should resign ourselves to that, without illusion and without asking it to be more? Or, even so, should we go for the gusto we can get while we can still go for anything? Should we create such meaning as we can, in between the inevitable finish we don't like and the start for which we did not ask? What meaning or purpose can something that is dust to dust have anyway?
In Lent we begin with the most unflinching fact of our existence, death, and are asked to be quite clear on that -- you will die, and everything and everyone else dies or decays or passes too. Ashes signify that. Ashes are that. Ashes are in your face about that. Ashes are ON your face about that.
But ashes are also something else. Ashes are also a sign of repentance. Repentance from what? Is it not God who needs to repent, if there even is one, for supposedly creating such an inescapable joke, whose only meaning is whatever we provide it? What about all the suffering and sickness we see everywhere? And here's this church service where you mark stuff on your face then read a Gospel passage saying not to go around looking like you're being all religious by marking stuff on your face. What's up with that?
Hey, it's Lent. This is not going to be pretty. Or very nice either. It gets a little rough. And on Ash Wednesday the two most basic facts of Man come to-gether in a jarring way. One is the fact that you came from nothing and you're going back there. We can see that. The other fact we cannot see, which is, God doesn't want it that way, didn't and doesn't intend it that way, so if it's that way it is now, that is Man's doing, not God's. Hence the repentance. So what's God gonna do about that? More on that shortly.
The double message of the ashes is clear. It runs through the readings on Ash Wednesday at mass, also known as divine service and not to be confused with Mass: turn to God and you will be delivered, stick to ashes and you will be, well, ashes.
A Purpose Driven Life?
Rick Warren says, whenever God wants to prepare someone for something, he takes forty days. His forty days for either churches or individuals has the same basis, two passages from Matthew, the one the Great Commandment in Matthew 22, and the other the Great Commission in Matthew 28. From that he abstracts five principles, or purposes for Man.
Love the Lord with all your heart … (Worship)
Love your neighbour as yourself. (Ministry)
Go and make disciples … (Mission)
Baptising them … (Fellowship)
Teaching them … (Discipleship)
OK, but guess what? The church in its liturgy -- supposedly the dismal domain of those who only care about maintaining the musty museum of such things -- for most of its two millennia existence has been offering a five-point forty days of purpose to prepare for God's answer to Man's problem, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christian Passover. This period of preparation for it in both the Eastern and Western Church is a period of forty days in imitation of Christ’s forty days in the desert before he began his way to the cross.
The Eastern church's forty days starts on a Monday called Clean Monday and runs forty consecutive days until Friday of the sixth week, then celebrates Lazarus Saturday as a pointing toward Jesus' Resurrection, then proceeds with Holy Week where his way to the cross is told.
The Western church starts on a Wednesday and does not include Sundays in the count, each Sunday being a "little Easter", and concludes with Holy Saturday, which is also the end of Holy Week.
Same idea, different ways of setting it up.
For the five Sundays in Lent before Holy Week, the Western Church offers the five point plan of preparation. Lent will start with the starkest facts of human existence, right from looking like there is no meaning or purpose to it, in your face, ON your face, then see why that is and what God has done about it, and end by actually inviting, welcoming, not dreading, the judgement of God.
Originally in English, what we now call Lent was called by the Latin word Quadragesima, meaning fortieth, from its duration of 40 days, and "Lent" as we saw just meant "Spring". As time went on, since Quadragesima always happens at this time of year, "Lent" became associated with that, and the season was more called Spring, from a Germanic root meaning just that, to spring up, since that's when plants start to spring up. This transition, where the word for Spring gets associated with Quadragesima and a new word appears for Spring, in English was complete by about the 14th Century. Other languages kept the Latin name but adapted it, for example in Spanish the word for Lent is Cuaresma.
In our sister language German, what we now call Lent is called die Fastenzeit, which means "the fasting time". Spring, the season, is der Frühling or das Frühjahr, "early year" literally, or poetically, der Lenz, which harks back to "long". And in the Eastern Church, the season is known (in English) as Great Lent, or Great Fast. So what's up with the fasting, where does that come from? The idea has a basis in Scripture but is nowhere commanded in Scripture at this time of year, so the basis is human, not divine. The basis is, the forty days fasting in the desert that the synoptic (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Gospel accounts relate Jesus having done before beginning his public ministry.
What's Up With Lenten Fish Frys?
The whole idea of anything about the church year is to get into the life of Christ -- who he is and why we think that's God's answer to Man's problem. This part of the church year is to prepare to celebrate the culmination of his life, his Death and Resurrection, which will happen in what is called Holy Week and Easter. Not originally, but rather early on, by the 300s (4th Century) or so, people began to attach to Quadragesima (Lent) penitential practices to be part of this preparation, of which a fast in imitation of Christ's fast was a major element. It takes various specifics in various places and time, but the common factor is self-denial.
Meat is pretty universally the big thing to go, but other animal products like eggs and milk often go too, and while the West generally allowed fish, not finding it as tasty and pleasing as meat, the East generally banned fish too. There's fasting, but there's abstinence too. Abstinence means no intake of something, fasting greatly restricts intake. So, you reduce the amount of everything, and eliminate some things altogether. While things are greatly relaxed since say the Middle Ages, the form this had when I was a kid is typical. One full meal a day, and two lighter meals, called collations, not to equal another full meal, are allowed, and no meat on some days. Now, that's only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Thing is, these are all human ideas of stuff to do. They ain't in the Bible. Which doesn't make them bad ideas. And, Lutherans aren't a "If it ain't in the Bible we ain't doing it" bunch, but rather, we're a "if it contradicts what's in the Bible we ain't doing it" bunch. As with all our human things in response to God, from pious personal practices to a community practice like liturgy, they are just that, human, and not actions we take to please God or make ourselves more godly. In fact, trying to please God or become more godly through our own actions stands the Gospel right on its head. The Gospel, which means good news, is, that God has already made us pleasing to him despite ourselves, through the Death and Resurrection of Christ, his action, not ours.
Which is not at all to say OK then eat like a pig, Christ died for you so it's all good. Bodily discipline, moderation, not being wasteful, etc is a good idea and a proper response to God all the time, not just during Lent. Self-induced early stage glucose deprivation, which is the physiological effect of fasting, need not be theologised into a "hunger" for Christ. These things are fine for voluntary outward observance and training, but easily descend into works-righteousness, and that ain't Gospel.
Pious personal practices may, or may not, aid in Lenten devotion. Either way, with them or without them, the point is the same, and there is no point, literally, in pious practices if the point of them is lost or they themselves become the point.
BTW, you know why they call those light meals collations? Ain't a collation a collecting or gathering of something? Yes it is, so how did a meal come to be called a collation? Monks, that's how. In a monkery, I mean monastery, having withdrawn from life in the world, when you eat a meal you listen to somebody read spiritual stuff (called lectio divina, divine reading). During light meals Benedictines would often use a collection by John Cassian of conversations he had with desert monks on the spiritual life called Collationes patrum in scetica eremo (Conferences of the Desert Fathers), and the word "collation" from that Latin book title came to be the name of the meal too. Monk stuff. Do you live in a monkery, withdrawn from the life of the world? No? Skip the collation and have a decent meal and some human interaction with those having it with you.
Here's how Lent/Quadragesima works. The church has a definite pattern it uses to take us through the life of Christ and our life in Christ. It's an annual (not a three year) cycle. It arranges readings from the book it says you can rely on, the Bible, followed by a sermon based on these readings, in the same pattern every day.
Here's the pattern.
The church begins its liturgy with an introductory verse called the Introit. The word derives from the Latin word for entrance (introitus). That sets the tone for the day, is usually taken from the Psalms, with a verse response to it. In fact, the Sunday often takes its nickname from the first word or two of this introductory verse, the Introit. Then, the church has a prayer before the Scripture readings each Sunday that collects the thoughts of the day, called, oddly enough, the Collect. Then, for Scripture readings, the church continues the synagogue practice of two readings from Scripture, but replaces the synagogue's Torah, or Law, readings with Gospel ones, and replaces the related haftorah, a related reading usually from the Prophets, with ones usually but not always from the Epistles.
Let’s see how that lays out for Ash Wednesday and the Sundays in Lent. We'll get to Holy Week, the thing for which all this is preparation, in later posts.
Ash Wednesday / Aschermittwoch. 1 March 2017.
Introit. Wisdom 11:24,25,27. Thou has mercy upon all, O Lord, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made, overlooking the sins of men for the sake of repentance and sparing them, because Thou art the Lord our God. Verse, Psalm 56:2.
Collect. Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitient, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.
Epistle. Joel 2:12-19.
Gospel. Matthew 6:16-21.
Invocavit -- He shall call to Me. 5 March 2017.
Introit. Psalm 91:15,16. He shall cry to Me, and I shall hear him; I will deliver him and I will glorify him; I will fill him with length of days. Verse, Psalm 91:1.
Collect. O Lord, mercifully hear our prayer and stretch forth the right hand of the majesty to defend us from them that rise up against us.
Epistle. 2 Cor 6:1-10 Not to receive grace in vain. Now is the acceptable time, now it the day of salvation.
Gospel. Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus' forty days and nights, tempted to be a false Messiah.
Reminiscere – Remember, O Lord. 12 March 2017.
Introit. Psalm 25:6,3,22. Remember, O Lord, Thy compassions, and Thy mercies that are from the beginning of the world, lest at any time our enemies rule over us: deliver us, O God of Israel, from all our tribulations. Verse, Psalm 25:1,2.
Collect. O God, who seest that of ourselves we have no strength, keep us both outwardly and inwardly that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.
Epistle. 1 Thess 4:1-7 Progress in sanctification, holiness.
Gospel. Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Great is thy faith, let it be done.
Oculi -- My eyes are ever toward the Lord. 19 March 2017.
Introit. Psalm 25:15-16. My eyes are ever toward the Lord: for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare; look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me, for I am alone and poor. Verse, Psalm 25:1,2.
Collect. We beseech Thee, almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of Thy humble servants and stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty to be our defence against all our enemies.
Epistle. Eph 5:1-9 Walk, then, as children of light.
Gospel. Luke 11:14-28 Jesus’ lesson after casting out a demon. Blessed are they that hear the Word and keep it.
Laetare – Rejoice, O Jerusalem. 26 March 2017.
Introit. Isaiah 66:10,11. Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come to-gether all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Verse, Psalm 122:1.
Collect. Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of Thy grace may mercifully be relieved.
Epistle. Gal 4:22-31 Children of Agar, bondage, slave, Sinai; children of Sarah, promise, free, Jerusalem.
Gospel. John 6:1-15 The loaves and fishes. Passover is near, the bread king.
Judica -- Judge me, O God. 2 April 2017.
Introit. Psalm 43:1,2. Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man: for Thou are my God and my strength. Verse, Psalm 43:3.
Collect. We beseech Thee, almighty God, mercifully to look upon Thy people, that by Thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore in body and soul.
Epistle. Heb 9:11-15 Christ the High Priest, blood of the new covenant blots out sins under the old covenant.
Gospel. John 8:46-59 If anyone keep my word, he will never see death. Before Abraham came to be, I am.
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