Did you notice anything different when you walked into church this morning? We have entered into a new church season, the season of Lent. Even if you didn’t know that, there are visual clues that might tell you something has changed, even before worship began.
Our banner and vestments have changed to burlap and purple, the color that represents penitence in the Church. The nails and crown of thorns on the hangings and vestments point to what lies ahead on this Lenten journey.
Crosses draped in purple, and bare branches instead of flowers add to the somberness of the season. And at the Eucharist you will note that the vessels we use are not the usual gleaming silver, but pottery in earthen tones, with a glaze this is appropriately called iron and ashes.
You will notice changes in the liturgy, too.
The only time the word “alleluia” is used during Lent is at a funeral, when we say, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Other than that the “A word” does not appear in any prayers or hymns until the Easter Vigil.
Today we began the service with the Great Litany, that long laundry list of prayers for every sort and condition of the human experience. It is traditional to use this prayer every year on the first Sunday in Lent.
In following Sundays, we will move the confession to the beginning of the service, as a reminder that this season is supposed to be a time of penitence.
All of these outward signs are designed to help us with what our prayer book calls the “observation of a holy Lent.”
Observing a holy Lent is an ancient Christian tradition, going back to at least the early 4th century. Drawing from the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness facing temptation, the Gospel story that we heard today, the church instituted the 40 days before Easter as a time of penitence and fasting to prepare for the joy of the Resurrection.
Lent became a time when converts to Christianity prepared to be baptized at Easter. And it was a time when those who had been separated from the church because of what the prayer book calls “notorious sins” were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness.
We no longer require the rigorous preparation for baptism that the early Church required. And I can’t really think of a time when a notorious sinner was cast from the Church. But Lent still plays a significant role in our lives of faith.
Of course, the scripture passages that we read during Lent are chosen specifically for the season.
The first Sunday in Lent the Gospel reading is always a variation on the one we heard today – Jesus’ 40 days alone and fasting in the wilderness, where he is tempted repeatedly by Satan.
It is an obvious choice to begin the season.
But this year I found myself reflecting on the other readings for today, particularly the one from Deuteronomy.
At first glance it sounds like a reading perhaps better suited for the fall and stewardship campaigns than the first Sunday in Lent.
The people of Israel are coming near the end of their time in the wilderness – 40 years instead of the 40 days that Jesus faced. Moses, who will not live to see the Promised Land, is giving the people instructions on how they are to live when they finally get there.
Once they possess the land, and are settled there, they are to take the fruits from their first harvest and offer it to God with thanksgiving, remembering all that God has done for them from the time they were slaves in Egypt, how God delivered them from slavery and sustained them in the wilderness until they reached the long-promised land.
The offering of the first fruits is an acknowledgement that the land and all its rich benefits come from God as a gift, undeserved and unearned.
My guess is that Moses knows that once the Israelites are settled in the land of milk and honey, once the harvests begin producing in abundance, that they will be tempted to forget about the God who liberated them from slavery and sustained them in the wilderness.
They will be tempted to pat themselves on the back, to congratulate themselves on all their hard work that has produced this abundance. They will be tempted to look at others who don’t have as much and think that they are somehow less deserving.
“God helps those who help themselves,” they, and we, might be tempted to say.
The truth is that nowhere in scripture does it say that God helps those who help themselves.
What it does say – time and time and time again – are that those who have received much – like the Israelites in the promised land, like us in affluent north Atlanta – have a responsibility to help those who have less.
That admonition is directed to nations as well as individuals. From a biblical perspective there is no debate over whether a nation should provide things like quality preschool or health care or food and housing to those who cannot afford them. It is our biblical imperative to do so.
From a biblical perspective there is no debate over whether a nation should be welcoming of immigrants. It is our biblical imperative to do so.
Writer Megan McKenna says that it is significant that the first scripture reading on the first Sunday in Lent is about giving.
“The beginning of Lent is a good time to examine how we give individually and and as a family, a community, a parish, a nation,” she writes. “It is also the time to look at what we give: time, money, resources, service, care for others.
“This kind of giving is a privilege, an honor, and a blessing that is characterized by joy, because this is how God gives to all of us.
“Traditionally in this season we are to give to the poor as graciously as our God has given to us,” McKenna says, then wryly adds, “This can take some practice.”
Giving really begins with gratitude – to recognize the many ways in which we have been blessed, and then to find ways to pass those blessings on to others. It may be a
financial donation; it may be the gift of time volunteering or helping someone else; it may be something as simple as truly listening to someone in need.
McKenna offers this prayer for the first Sunday in Lent that we may make this a season of gratitude and generosity:
“Gracious God, you gave us your best gift, Jesus Christ your Son, to be our savior, brother, and strength in food and drink and word. Let us trust in you and imitate Jesus’ wholehearted giving of himself. Accept our gifts this Lent, accept us, all of us, and transform us into your body, the church in the world.”