“An Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent,” is the rubric in the liturgy for Lent that catches me, a third of the way into the service, every year. The words don’t seem to fit together comfortably. This year, I’m slower as we pass by this point in the service, and in the next few minutes I realize I’ve got the feel of an extra perspective. It’s not a particularly comfortable sensation.
One gets used to feeling like an individual in church accompanying other individuals, all of whom agree (or are polite enough) to say “we” all together. “We confess” “we praise” “we pray” “we thank”—we all engage in rather an amazing act of imagination and intellect at least once a week, forming a union of spirit and body leading to the wholeness of sharing the Eucharist.
And now we are invited in—so here’s a discovery: Lent isn’t so much a personal obligation as a communal opportunity. And we are asked to observe—to pay moments of conscious awareness, to be careful and purposeful about what we see and do. And ‘holy Lent’—those last two words don’t yield easy meaning. A holy Lent, I think. What does that really mean?
Holy: healthy; whole; connected; dedicated. Lent: the word is rooted in Old English, Old Slavic and Sanskrit as langa tinaz, the way people more than a thousand years ago wrote and said, ‘longer days’: the longer days of spring. Other European languages use the word ‘lent’ but only in English does the word have liturgical meaning: the long 40 days’ observance in spring.
We tend to be more focused on our shared faith in these long forty days ahead. Lent has shaping power to make us all aware that we are a whole body connected by our worship, dedicated together in the Baptismal Covenant. I think about church leaders at this time of year. Most churches have just dedicated, ordained or commissioned their new leadership groups. As Lent begins, they are just taking up the long holy work of strengthening, discerning and serving the good of the Body of Christ in the community of believers they will serve in the coming year. Surely they hope to walk all year more closely in step with the members of their congregations than they may have been in the year just past. This invitation to a Holy Lent is to them as a group, as well as to us as the larger community around them.
When all of us leave a given worship service, we are simultaneously the whole community while we are becoming our individual selves again. Leaders form this mysterious being of community and personality on the strength of worship experienced the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Leaders may look like they’re just sitting around in a big square shuffling papers, but their real task is to stop thinking of their particular parish as a personal extension of their own interests, their new opportunities to be recognized, their values and concerns. Then, their task is to stretch into knowing their particular church as a living community with a particular character, particular gifts, a particular call from God to answer, and with work we all have to be doing.
Church leaders find themselves looking at specific decisions with the sense of many eyes and ears simultaneously absorbing impressions at 360 o. They find themselves with heart and mind stretched well beyond their own personal concerns, and this will probably be uncomfortable for most of them, most of the time they are serving. Besides, they find themselves with lessening time that constantly fills up with communal To Do lists and To Pray For lists.
At all times, when we talk with our own church leaders, we are talking together about who we are and where we are as God’s holy, called people. This kind of conversation about being church isn’t somebody else’s responsibility—it’s yours and theirs and ours. I hope you will sense the gift of community we have in each other as a part of observing a holy Lent. As we go through the long days of spring, and as church leaders work through 2012, I hope the blessing of health and whole heartedess will come to us more connected in service, more alive in stewardship and more alight in witness to God.