As someone who has long practised Lent, I see tradition and discipleship as key reminders that strengthen my faith. Professor Esau McCaulley’s course, A Journey through Lent, is reaffirming these themes as I progress through Lent. Like Prof. McCaulley, I was brought up from a young age in a non-liturgical church, so I knew little of Lent except hearing about people ‘giving up’ things.
This changed when I received a scholarship to attend a school attached to an ancient English Cathedral. I attended school worship in an elaborately decorated chapel, complete with its ornate altar – but come Lent, the decoration was all covered. The same happens today in the church that I attend. The decoration behind the altar is folded up, just two panels of plain wood remaining.
This is part of the tradition of Lent and forcibly reminds me each year that Lent is a very different kind of season. As we learn in A Journey through Lent, we have the opportunity to take stock of our Christian lives and think of serious things. Prof. McCaulley reminds us of the tradition of the imposition of ashes which begins the season, during which we are brought face-to-face with our own mortality. The priest makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads in ash and says, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. A chilling antidote to some of our more cheerful worship. The value of the tradition of following the liturgical year is that we can’t avoid the difficult bits.
And that leads me on to discipleship. We are told to ‘be faithful to Christ’. In the UK, when our cars are three years old, we have to have them tested for roadworthiness at a government-approved test centre. We then get a certificate that lasts until the car is retested the following year. If something is wrong with our cars, it must be corrected before the certificate is issued. Lent should be a bit like this for our spiritual lives. We can use the time to test our spiritual roadworthiness. There are all sorts of ways of doing this.
It’s easy for our spiritual practices to become stale and comfortable over time; our prayer often becomes a matter of habit and our reading of scripture quite perfunctory, neither leading to an encounter with the living God. Lent is a time to reevaluate how you personally go about these practices. Would a book of prayers give structure to your prayer life, especially if you come from a tradition that only uses extemporaneous prayer? It may be worth a try. What about scripture reading? Do you follow a programme or just dip in and out? There are plenty of study guides available, both in print and online. Your pastor or priest should be able to help. What about reading a challenging book? My priest suggests a couple of titles to us each year. You can do this alone, or you might find meeting and discussing it with others helpful. There is, of course, much online material, like Prof. McCaulley’s course (you can preview the course here).
As I looked at the draft of this course, I was impressed by the way Prof. McCaulley drew such a positive picture of observing Lent. The common view that it should be a gloomy and negative time, wherein the emphasis is on giving up something you enjoy, is replaced by the positive joy of the gospel. His devotions for each Sunday help us focus, and his descriptions of Holy Week – the commemoration of Jesus’s last week – bring us right into the meaning of discipleship with its challenges and, indeed, like those who followed Jesus, its failures.
To recap on how I see these themes giving strength to my faith: in following the tradition, I am linking myself to those millions of Christians in past centuries but also sharing a common journey in 2023; by re-evaluating my spiritual life and discipleship with God’s help, I am trying, in the words of Paul to the Philippians, ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’.
May God give you all a Holy Lent so that at the end of the journey, we may all share in the joy and power of the Resurrection.