Celebrating Mercy: Reforming Lenten Practices

I argued in my last post here, that Lent is about God’s mercy for human misery. The season leading up to Easter is not, or at least not centrally, about human miserableness or even ways of devising humans solutions to that misery. It is about what God has done in Christ to unite us to himself so that we, in our spiritual misery and poverty, might become new individuals and a new people. Lent is centrally about participation in Christ and only secondarily about imitation of Christ.

What does this mean practically for the way that we mark the Lenten season?

Lenten disciplines, at their best, draw us back to the basics. Not to our vague sense of miseria but to the specific miserere, the mercy of God, which fully and radically⁠—to the roots⁠—understands and deals with our miserable condition. Lent is about God’s pity for our pitiable condition. Lenten disciplines should remind us of this reality.

In the spirit of placing God, and not us, at the centre of Lent, allow me to suggest very briefly a few practices that we might recover over the Lenten period.

  • Using the Ten Commandments in Public Confession

In the liturgy for public confession in the Book of Common Prayer is included the reading of the Ten Commandments. This was to be said at least once a month, and at all other points, the priest could use a summary form.

Some might ask: does this practice not go against the spirit of Lent as described above? Are we not incapable of doing the law anyway? This is where the Reformed traditions seek to recover the law as a gracious gift, where other traditions might pit the law against grace. The liturgy draws us into the important reality that it is the human heart, and not God’s law, that is the problem. After each commandment is read out, the congregation declares: “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law”. It is only if God transforms our hearts by his Spirit, and unites us to himself, that we can serve him. He alone can incline our hard hearts to serve him. And, as the text of Exodus introduces these commandments, it reminds the people that this same God who offers them rules for life, is the same God who delivered them from the house of slavery. Some balk at the constraining power of laws. But seen from this perspective, these commandments are a merciful gift to us from a God who has our best interests at heart. Whereas we languish and die outside of the bounds that are set for our own good, when we live our lives according to God’s perfect law of liberty, we paradoxically find perfect freedom. We flourish.

  • Communal Meals

I attended a Passover (Pesaḥ) Seder meal a few years back in a London synagogue. The congregation ate and drank together and recited the Passover liturgy. Through readings, enactments and symbols, the story was passed from one generation to the next. I often wonder if Christian communities, made up of both Jew and Gentile, are not missing a trick here. Could we not also bring the community together over the Holy Week, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday and draw on the riches of our heritage and pass it on through song and tradition? Perhaps some communities do this already. And of course, there are some who hold meals on Maundy Thursday with footwashing ceremonies and end the season with a celebratory meal on Easter Sunday. But I wonder if more could be made of this.

  • Praying for the Persecuted Church

For the comfortable Western church, the persecuted church is a very real reminder of our participation in Christ’s suffering. Lent is a poignant time, then, for remembering brothers and sisters facing persecution for their religious faith, in general, and Christian faith, in particular. Open Doors has a variety of resources including monthly diaries and a Lenten prayer guide. Operation World is a similarly rich resource that enriches prayer for the church catholic.

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There are no doubt many other practices that could be taken up, including the traditional ones of almsgiving and fasting, and other less conventional ones such as writing to the incarcerated (what does the mercy of God have to do with the justice system?). These practices are ways of drawing us deeper into the reality that God in his mercy has done what we were incapable of doing for ourselves. The whole focus of Lent is transformed in the process.

So what disciplines, habits and practices will we take up this year, that will remind us of the reality of what has God done for us?

Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

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