ONCE AGAIN, Frederick Schmidt has hit the nail on the head:
… our failure to draw people into the life of the church has nothing to do with the way that we worship. What keeps the Episcopal Church from connecting with the world is self-satisfied classism; ice cold, clubby parishes; and an absence of deep, spiritually engaging preaching. Those are the problems that we need to tackle.
LET’S FACE IT. Lent is in trouble.
Let me explain. Most of us have favorite holiday seasons. For some it’s Christmas, with the family get-togethers and presents. For others it’s the Fourth of July and summer, filled by a sense of national pride and beach vacations to boot. But each year at just about this time, it strikes me that very few of us would pick Lent, a season that seems to most of us as grim as the weather that usually attends it.
Think about it: crossing off days on the calendar until Ash Wednesday; leaving work just a little early, saying “I’ve got to get my Lenten shopping done;” advertisements on billboards and television reading “only 12 more days ’til the day of Ashes;” or little kids going to bed, asking their parents, “How much longer ’till Lent is here?” It just doesn’t happen.
The trouble with Lent, I think, is fairly clear. It’s buried right in the heart of the primary reading for Ash Wednesday, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Sigh) Actually, you don’t have to read the whole verse, as the brunt of the problem of Lent is in the first four words, “And when you fast….” And when you fast?! C’mon. Except for the occasional crash diet before summer vacation, who fasts anymore?
And there it is in a nutshell, you see, the trouble with Lent: it feels like this strange,weirdly anachronistic holiday that celebrates things we don’t value and encourages attitudes we don’t share. No wonder that each year fewer and fewer churches observe this age-old (fourth century!) tradition — it’s too old-fashioned, too “Roman,” too medieval for many contemporary Christians to handle.
So let’s face it. Lent is in trouble. I mean, even among those traditions that do honor the season, rarely is there the same kind of enthusiasm or expectancy which greets Advent. Notice we don’t sponsor Lenten Adventures for our kids; we don’t have an Adult Lenten Dinner and Party. We don’t pine to sing Lenten hymns ahead of time. Lent is in trouble.
I don’t know, maybe it’s that there are no presents at the end, and no fun and games along the way. Or maybe it’s that Lent asks us to give up things. I mean, my word, haven’t we had to sacrifice enough already to get our kids through college, to save for retirement, to put that new roof on the house, thank you very much. Why should we give up anything more for Lent?
Or maybe it’s the themes of Lent that trouble us. Penitence. Sacrifice. Contemplation. These are the words of Lent, and I, for one, have a hard time believing they were popular even with the Puritans (you remember, the folks that actually held competitions to see who could resist the greatest temptation or avoid the most pleasure) let alone now.
Lent, I’m telling ya, it’s in trouble. And so each year, as I listen to my non-Lent-observing friends knock it as “works theology” and my Lent-observing friends complain about it as a pain in the @&!, the same question inevitably demands loudly to be answered: Why Lent? I mean, who really needs it?
But you know what? Each year, whatever my feelings approaching Lent may be, the same answer comes whispering back: I do. Just maybe, I need Lent. Just maybe I need a time to focus, to get my mind off of my career, my social life, my next writing project — and a hundred other things to which I look for meaning — and center myself in Meaning itself.
Just maybe I need a time (is 40 days really enough?) to help clear my head of the distractions which any involved life in this world will necessarily bring and re-orient myself towars the Maker of all that was given for my pleasure and which I have let become merely distracting.
Maybe I need the opportunity (and perhaps deep down I crave the chance!) to clear my eyes of the glaze of indifference and apathy which comes from situation after situation where I feel nearly helpless so that I can fasten my eyes once more on the almost unbearable revelation of the God who loves God’s children enough to take the form of a man hanging on a tree.
And maybe, just maybe — and this takes the greatest amount of imagination of them all — just maybe Lent really isn’t mine to do with whatever I please. Perhaps Lent isn’t even the Church’s to insist upon or discard at will. Maybe Lent isn’t any of ours to scoff at or observe. Maybe Lent is God’s. Maybe Lent is God’s gift to a people starved for meaning, for courage, for comfort, for life.
If it is, if we can imagine that Lent is not ours at all but is wholly God’s, then maybe we’ll also begin to recall, at first vaguely but then more strongly, that we, too, are not ours at all, but are wholly God’s — God’s own possession and treasure.
Seen this way, Lent reminds us of whose we are. The “sacrifices,” the disciplines, these are not intended as good works offered by us to God; rather, they are God’s gifts to us to remind us who we are, God’s adopted daughters and sons, God’s treasure, so priceless that God was willing to go to any length — or, more appropriately, to any depth — to tell us that we are loved, that we have value, that we have purpose.
Yes. I need Lent. I need an absence of gifts so that I might acknowledge the Gift. I need a time to be quiet and still, a time to crane my neck and lift my head, straining to hear again what was promised me at Baptism: “You are mine! I love you! I am with you!”
I need Lent, finally, to remind me of who I am — God’s heir and Christ’s co-heir — so that, come Easter, I can rejoice and celebrate with all the joy, all the revelry, all the anticipation, of a true heir to the throne.
And so yes, I need Lent. And to tell you the truth, I suspect that you do, too. You see, if Lent is in trouble, it’s only because we’re in trouble, so busy trying to make or keep or save our lives that we fail to notice that God has already saved us and has already freed us to live with each other and for each other all the rest of our days. And so we have Lent, a gift of the church, the season during which God prepares us to behold his own great sacrifice for us, with the hope and prayer that, come Good Friday and Easter, we may be immersed once again into God’s mercy and perceive more fully his great love for us and all the world and in this way find the peace and hope and freedom that we so often lack.
David Lose is the author of the popular books Making Sense of Scripture, Making Sense of the Christian Faith, and Making Sense of the Cross. You can find his daily Bible devotions and articles on connecting faith and daily life at his blog “…In the Meantime.” Dr Lose is the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He speaks throughout the U.S. and abroad on preaching, leadership, Christian faith in a postmodern world and biblical interpretation.
MORNING PRAYER being the dead letter that it is in so much of the church, many will be unfamiliar with Psalm 95, the Venite, which is to be said at Morning Prayer every day before the psalms appointed (except the 19th day of each month, when it is said in the regular course of the psalms). It was said daily as the invitatory psalm in the pre-Reformation office of matins, in which capacity Cranmer incorporated it into the first Prayer Book, where it has remained ever since.
It is sung here — to the setting from John Sheppard’s First Service — by the Academia Musica Choir.
O COME, let us sing unto the Lord : let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving : and shew ourselves glad in him with Psalms.
For the Lord is a great God : and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth : and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it : and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come, let us worship and fall down : and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is the Lord our God : and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts : as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness;
When your fathers tempted me : proved me, and saw my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said : It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.
Unto whom I sware in my wrath : that they should not enter into my rest.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.
The Choir of Men & Boys of the Parish of All Saints, Ashmont. The deacon in the back row (decani) makes the cut as well.
AT A WEDDING reception a few years ago, a friend of mine turned to another friend and said, motioning to their wives, “You know, Mike, we really outkicked our coverage with these ladies.” They then exchanged a handshake, clapped one another on the back, and returned to their dinners.
Our friends at UrbanDictionary define “outkicking your coverage” as: To engage in a romantic relationship with a person who is much better looking, and/or smarter, and/or in a higher socioeconomic class than you. Essentially, a person who is widely considered to be ‘out of your league.’ As far as my two friends were concerned, in marrying intelligent, kind, attractive, and successful women, they were out of their league.
To an outside observer, this might have appeared hyperbolic, if not ridiculous, as both friends in question are themselves intelligent, kind, attractive, and successful. Degenerates and bums, they are not. That, however, is beside the point. The point here is gratitude (and good humor). You’ve outkicked your coverage, my friend, is another way of saying, Boy, aren’t you lucky? Way to go.
I’m always gratified to hear someone express such a sentiment. Given the countless grievances that can be levied against a spouse, to instead offer praise, gratitude, and a measure of disbelief at one’s own good fortune is a bracing tonic. While of course my two friends really did outkick their coverage, there’s no mandate that they acknowledge it. There’s nothing to keep them in awe of providence and the willingness of their wives to have said yes to their proposition of marriage. A posture of gratitude, in our culture of rights and the things we are owed by the world, is a healthy thing indeed.
And, although they probably weren’t thinking about it, gratitude is entirely biblical.
O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious : because his mercy endureth for ever.1
IT IS OFTEN SAID, by way of objection to its regular use, that Rite I is the more penitential rite. The objection is often clarified by sentiments that Rite I is so much more somber; it’s depressing; it’s too downbeat.
Without acknowledging our incompleteness, our inability to plug Pascal’s famous God-shaped abyss,2 we cannot fully recognize and give thanks for what God has done in Jesus Christ, Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven.
In Jesus Christ, we have outkicked our coverage, and this the good news itself. The God who has created all things is the God of love, and he has treated us with his infinite goodness and mercy, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses. God set his own son upon the Cross to take sin and death upon himself, that through his death and rising again he might defeat death, once and for all of us.
Too often in the church, we forget — and thus lose the ability to preach — that penitence and joy are flip sides of the same coin. Without penitence, we cannot fully appreciate the cosmic, singular thing that God has done for us in Christ, the singular thing on which our faith and the church rest. As a result, we become hostile at any suggestion that perhaps God is both infinitely different from us, yet also present with us, that he is both almighty and merciful. Forgetting that, in all of our frailty and imperfections, we are made by God, in the image of God, we turn a blind eye to the error of our own self-absorption and our stubborn pride, rather defensively maintaining that God is all very well and good, but we can dig ourselves out of whatever hole we find ourselves in, thank you very much. To such a people, the Prayer of Humble Access is like a voice from outer space, spouting gibberish both unintelligible and objectionable.
Katie Badie, in her excellent tract on this prayer, observes that:
…we can question if [penitence] was Cranmer’s intention, as it would seem that he considered it a prayer of humble thankfulness and for ‘worthy reception’ rather than a prayer of repentance. After all, in its original 1548 Order setting, the Prayer of Humble Access came after the declaration of Absolution and the assurance of the Comfortable Words—Bible texts confirming the forgiveness of those who repent (Matt. 11:28, John 3:16, 1 Tim. 1:15, 1 John 1:21). In the Protestant perspective of justification by grace alone, the believer does not respond to such ‘evangelical’ sentences by more penitence, but with thanksgiving. The Prayer of Humble Access therefore stands apart from the initial penitential sequence and is perhaps more joyful than we modern listeners appreciate!3
It is not, after all, a prayer of mere humility, but the Prayer of Humble Access. There are two parts to it, and Ms. Badie rightly notes that in this text Cranmer moves us from the penitence of our confession to the joy of our admission to Holy Communion.
The naysayers always get caught up in the words “not worthy,” which evidently form some sort of slur against well meaning church people. This sounds to me like a little too much protesting. If we have undertaken the hard work of sober self-examination and confession, this lovely turn of phrase shouldn’t bother us. If we understand properly what confession is, that it isn’t about feeling bad about ourselves, but about being frank about where we stand before God and our neighbor, then the concept of our own unworthiness shouldn’t be any big news. To believe otherwise is very much to trust in our own righteousness and to neglect what Kierkegaard called the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and his human creatures. As St. Paul writes: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’4
But again, human fallibility is not the end of the story! The beauty of the Prayer of Humble Access lies in the conjunction at its very center: BUT. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but… BUT! The prayer doesn’t end there, just as the story of God and men didn’t end in the third chapter of Genesis. Left to ourselves, things would be just the same old, same old. BUT thou are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy, and thanks be to God for it!
Although the concluding sentences saw some revision in the 1979 Prayer Book, the sentiment remains the same: that through our reception of the Holy Communion, we may be partakers of Christ’s triumph over the power of sin and death, and that we may be united with him in everlasting life.
The Prayer of Humble Access is one of Cranmer’s unique additions to the Reformed liturgy of the Church of England, one which has no exact precedent in any English or the Roman rite, and it expresses a peculiarly apt sentiment for those of us who would kneel before the altar. If we are, as we proclaim ourselves, a Eucharist-centered (not to say Eucharist-obsessed) church, then we would be well to embrace this prayer and the subtle explication of our proper relationship to God that it provides. We are unworthy, BUT God is merciful, and that is some good news for us. When we have confessed that this is so, the Prayer of Humble Access moves us forward, to the humble joy of our reception at the Lord’s Table, and it gives us a language with which to express the gratitude appropriate to such a welcome.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
1. Psalm 118:1
2. See Pascal, Pensées 10.148
3. Katie Badie, “The Prayer of Humble Access,” Churchman 120:2 (2006): 103–117 (105).
4. Romans 11:33-34