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Journey into the Heart of God$

Philip H. Pfatteicher

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199997121

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199997121.001.0001

Quadragesima. Lent

(p.130) 5 Quadragesima. Lent
Journey into the Heart of God

Philip H. Pfatteicher

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Lent as we now have it seems to derive from four separate practices, both individual and communal;as it is now observed, preparation for baptism is a prominent feature. At the beginning of the sixth century the preparation was gradually extended to create a pre-Lenten period before Ash Wednesday. In the present calendar, Ash Wednesday, now an abrupt interruption without a preparatory introduction, may be regarded as a beginning of the liturgical year; the ashes are a rich symbol of mortality, repentance, cleansing, and healing. A basic image of the season of Lent is the pilgrimage, following Abraham in his archetypal journey to the promised land, our true home. The First Sunday, focusing of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, serves as an overture to the Paschal mystery: obedient discipline leading to victory and anticipating glorification;the Fourth Sunday, mid-Lent, offers a brief respite on the way;the Fifth Sunday still bears traces of the former two-week Passiontide. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the Eastern Church’s observance of Lazarus Saturday as a prefiguring of the resurrection of Christ and consequently of his people.

Keywords:   pre-Lent, lent, ash Wednesday, ashes, pilgrimage, mid-Lent, passiontide, lazarus Saturday, transfiguration

He exhortation appointed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday to introduce the imposition of ashes provides a good summary of the history and purpose of Lent.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer. [p. 265]

The address is a slight revision of the description prepared for the Canadian Prayer Book to replace the homily found in previous English and Canadian books.

The Purpose and Development of Lent

The Exhortation recognizes the primacy of the holy Triduum, the sacred three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day, celebrated as one extended (p.131) observance: “the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.” The varied development of the preparatory period, gradually extended to forty days, is compressed to the phrase “it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them,” and the dual purpose of the preparatory period is noted: converts were prepared for baptism and notorious sinners were returned to the fellowship. The whole body of the Church—new Christians, lapsed Christians, faithful Christians—is seen as one people to whom the Gospel of pardon and forgiveness is addressed.

The second paragraph describes the threefold practice of Lent: self-examination resulting in repentance; the personal discipline of prayer, fasting, and self-denial; reading and pondering the Bible.

The address prepared for the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship is comparable. To counter a prevailing understanding that Lent was a season of gloom, the address opens with an allusion to the joyful paradise that was and remains God’s intention for his creation and an understanding of how sin is destructive of that happiness.

Brothers and sisters: God created us to experience joy in communion with him, to love all humanity, and to live in harmony with all of his creation. But sin separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, and so we do not enjoy the life our creator intended for us. Also, by our sin we grieve our Father, who does not desire us to come under his judgment, but to turn to him and live.

As disciples of the Lord Jesus we are called to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and neighbor. Repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love—the discipline of Lent—help us to wage our spiritual warfare. I invite you, therefore, to commit yourselves to this struggle and confess your sins, asking our Father for strength to persevere in your Lenten discipline.1

The opening sentences derive from Genesis 1-3, God’s good will for his creation and human corruption of that intention. By the rebellion described in Genesis 3, the man and the woman set themselves against God, against each other, and against the natural world. Driven from the garden of paradise, their original equality broken, the man ruling over the woman, the earth would yield its fruit to the man only after hard labor, childbearing would no longer be entirely pleasurable, hostility between the woman and the serpent emerged. None of this was in accordance with the will of God. With sin, however, came the knowledge of God not only as Creator and Master but as a loving parent, (p.132) grieved by the children’s destructive rebellion, whose good desires for the whole creation remain unchanged.

The second paragraph describes the Lenten discipline by the “evangelical counsels” identified in the medieval period—fasting, prayer, and good works—to which is prefixed “repentance,” recalling Luther’s recovery of the New Testament primacy of metanoia, turning around, changing the direction of one’s life. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”2 Prayer is the chief activity of Lent, the penitential season a time for renewal in the practice of prayer.3 Fasting is employed to support the practice of prayer, and almsgiving is service directed outward toward others to prevent self-absorption and to express the heart of the Christian life, self-giving in the service of others.4 In the Roman sacramentary the opening prayer for Friday after Ash Wednesday implores, “Support us, O Lord, with your gracious favor through the fast we have begun; that as we observe it by bodily self-denial, so we may fulfill it with inner sincerity of heart.”5 The Gospel-commanded actions are intended to change our life, to turn us outward toward God and then toward others. A responsory for Ash Wednesday sets forth the purpose of fasting and self-denial.

  • The Lord says, This is the fast that I choose:
  • To share your bread with the hungry.
  • Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
  • you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
  • When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
  • he will say to those at his right hand,
  • Come, you that are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom,
  • for I was hungry and you gave me food.
  • Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
  • you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.6
One is to fast in order to have something to share with those in need. John Chrysostom preached,

Fasting consists not merely in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices. Since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats is one who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him. If you see a friend gaining honor, do not envy. Let not the mouth only fast but also the eye, the (p.133) ear, the feet, the hands....Let the hands fast by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to forbidden pleasures. Let the eyes fast by learning never to fix themselves rudely on handsome faces or busy themselves with strange beauties....Let the ear fast also...[by] not listening to evil speaking and calumnies....Let the mouth fast from disgraceful speeches and railing.7

The liturgical expression of the fast of the eyes is the practice of veiling crosses, statues, and paintings in the Church during part or all of Lent. The fast of the ears is expressed by the suppression of the use of the organ during the final days of the season.

The concept of spiritual warfare is rooted in St. Paul’s description of the armor that protects combatants in the battle against “principalities, powers, and world rulers of this present darkness, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:10-17). Behind that lies the Hebrew picture of the Lord God of Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the Leader of the angelic armies and the God of battles. The idea of spiritual warfare was prominent in the early Church and through the Middle Ages. It is honored in the much-misunderstood Islamic idea of jihad, the struggle primarily within the self, involving commitment, even to giving one’s life. Lorenzo Scupoli’s Combattimento Spirituale (1589) is a classic spiritual writing of the Counter-Reformation period and was received, adapted, and revised according to the ancient traditions of the Eastern Church as well.8 Spiritual warfare is therefore a vigorous, active, and compelling metaphor for the work of Lent. That mortal combat is dramatically portrayed on the first Lenten Sunday, which focuses on Jesus’s struggle with Satan in the desert, recapitulating his ancestors’ forty years in the wilderness and giving us his example and courage in our own testing and struggle against temptation. “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour,” Peter warned (1 Peter 5:8). One is reminded of Samson and also David who both battled beasts (Jud. 14:5-6; 1 Sam. 17:34-36.) St. Mark in his brief report of Jesus’s temptation gives the detail that “he was with the wild beasts” (1:13). This may be intended to emphasize the fearsomeness of the time of testing and struggle, or it may suggest that in Jesus the messianic peaceable kingdom has arrived (Isa. 11:6-9); animals will not prey on others nor threaten human beings; all will live in perfect harmony as at the beginning of creation. It is in fact likely that Mark, perhaps remembering the account of the safety of Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan. 6:16-24, “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him”), has both interpretations in mind. (p.134)

The entire Church is involved in the struggle as it is in the support of candidates for baptism. Ultimately, the struggle is for the sake of the world. Penance is inward and individual but it is also outward and social, and so the season is suffused with optimism and confidence.9 A responsory for the Third Sunday in Lent exhorts,

  • Save the weak and the orphan,
  • defend the humble and needy.
  • Rescue the weak and the poor;
  • deliver them from the power of the wicked. [Ps. 82:3-4]
  • God chose the poor in the world to be rich in faith
  • and to be heirs of the kingdom
  • that he has promised to those who love him. [Jas. 2:5]
  • Rescue the weak and the poor;
  • deliver them from the power of the wicked.10
The responsibilities of Lent are not peculiar to the season. They are the duties of the Christian life, intensified during the Forty Days.

The season was first called, as it still is in Latin, jejunium, “the Fast.” In German it is die Fasten (“the Fast”) or Fastenzeit (“fasting time”). The English name “Lent” derives from the Old English lencten, “lengthen,” that is, spring when the daylight begins to lengthen. (German Lenz, spring.) Lent is therefore to be understood as the Church’s springtime of renewal. This renewal is not just of the people of God, Church, but the renewal of the whole world of which the human race is a part.

Sources of Lent

Explanations of the early history of Quadragesima, the Forty Days, divide along language lines, English versus European, even more sharply than on the question of the origins of Christmas. Two models stand directly opposed to each other. The traditional view has supposed a gradual growth of the time of preparation for Easter from one day to two days, then three days to the whole week before Easter, to a three-week intermediate stage, and then in the fourth century a general acceptance of a forty-day period, variously reckoned.

This growth model was opposed by Thomas Talley, whose research in Syriac and Arabic sources understood Quadragesima to be not the result of a gradual extension of the preparation for Easter, but a forty-day period originally independent of Easter that had arisen in Egypt in connection with the Epiphany as the feast of the baptism of Jesus. The model was Jesus’s (p.135) temptation in the wilderness, but the period was understood as a preparation for baptism celebrated afterward in the middle of February. The Council of Nicaea (325) moved the period to just before Pascha; at the same time Easter became fixed as the preferred time for the baptism of catechumens. This theory rests, critics say, on late and inconsistent sources and bears traces of anachronistic reconstruction.

Harald Buchinger has suggested that in view of the opposing theories, we are dealing apparently not with successive stages of the development of the preparatory period of Lent but with perhaps four separate phenomena: (1) the extension of Paschal fasting as an individual ascetic practice; (2) the carving out of Holy Week under the influence of pilgrims to Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century; (3) a three-week time of intensive preparation for baptism in various Western liturgies; (4) Quadragesima as a biblically inspired period of preparation for Easter introduced in the thirties of the fourth century.11

Whatever is the precise historical development of the season,12 one of the strands woven into Quadragesima is preparation for baptism. As adult baptism declined, the baptismal aspect of Lent became less prominent and eventually disappeared almost entirely until the twentieth century, when the Roman Catholic Church in the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults restored the catechumenate and recovered the baptismal character of Lent.

A second strand of what was to become the present Lent is a penitential fast before Pascha. Penance was originally for those under discipline in preparation for their reconciliation on Maundy Thursday. They were enrolled for their penance on the First Sunday in Lent, and when Lent was extended to Ash Wednesday, ashes were put on their heads as a sign of their mortality and repentance. The practice was later extended to all the faithful and became common by the tenth century. It was an impressive sign of community support of the penitents and of solidarity with them.13 By the end of the eleventh century, Pope Urban II extended the practice to the whole Western Church, when the practice of public penance had disappeared. The Lenten fast was a single meal daily, usually in the evening; later it included abstinence from meat and wine, as well as dairy products. During the high Middle Ages the strictness was relaxed and the focus shifted to the Passion of Christ. The Lutheran Common Service (1888) inherited this tradition and appointed as the Proper Preface for the season of Lent the Preface of the Cross, then in use in the Roman rite for Passiontide (the last two weeks of Lent), and in the Common Service Book (1917) provided the History of the Passion, a harmony of the four Gospel accounts divided into seven sections to be read at vespers on the days of Holy Week or during Lent.14 In both East and West, Lent was a “closed time” for marriages since the fourth century.15 There is no restriction in the 1983 Roman code of canon law. (p.136)

The one observation that may securely be made about the origins of Lent is that there were multiple sources.16 One indication that Lent had multiple origins is the comparative lack of striking liturgical texts associated with the season. Antiphons are drawn largely from Scripture, taken straight, and not subject to poetic elaboration or creative combination as, for example, are many of the texts of Advent and of Christmas-Epiphany.

The development may perhaps have been something like this. There was the original observance of the Paschal Vigil in which Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection were understood and experienced as one continuous celebration, preceded by a varying number of days of fasting. By the end of the second century the celebration of Easter was prolonged for fifty days, “the Pentecost.” In the third century one finds a six-day pre-Paschal fast in Alexandria and Syria that may be the origin of Holy Week. In view of the fifty days of Easter, however, even a week may have seemed inadequate as preparation, and so in Jerusalem, Rome, and elsewhere, three weeks were set aside for fasting, a week for each of the three days of the Triduum. The first reference to a forty-day Lent is Canon 5 of the Council of Nicaea (325), where it is not seen an innovation. By the end of the fourth century, the forty days of pre-Paschal preparation for Easter and for baptism at Easter seem to have become nearly universal,17 deriving perhaps, in part, from a forty-day post-Epiphany fast, in imitation of Jesus’s forty days in the desert following his baptism. The days were variously counted. Sundays were always excluded (the Lord’s Day of resurrection was never a fast); in Antioch and Cyprus and Jerusalem,18 Saturdays were also excluded in addition to Sundays. Good Friday and Holy Saturday came to be also excluded from the forty days and then also all of Holy Week. By the time of Leo the Great (440-461), Lent was six weeks long; Good Friday and Holy Saturday had been separated from the Triduum and added to the preparatory fast, making six weeks of six days each, thirty-six days, a tithe of the 365 days of the year.

In the West, the penitential period came to consist of the pre-Lenten preparation, the penitential time of Lent (Ash Wednesday and the following four weeks), and then a two-week Passiontide beginning on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, comparable to the final week of Advent, from December 17 to the Vigil of Christmas.

The development of liturgies on the weekdays of Lent was gradual. Initially there was the Eucharist on Sundays and a service of the Word on the fast days of Wednesday and Friday. In the fifth century services on Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday were added. In the sixth century all these became Eucharists. At last in the eighth century Thursday was provided with formularies for Mass. (p.137)

In the Eastern churches, the preparatory period is called Great Lent to distinguish it from the three lesser Lents, i.e., times of fasting: of the Apostles from All Saints Sunday (the Sunday following Pentecost) until the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, June 29; the fast of the Theotokos, August 1-14; and Christmas Lent, November 15 until December 24. Great Lent begins on the Monday before the Western Ash Wednesday and concludes in the evening of the sixth Friday of Great Lent, the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday, the day before Holy Week begins. Although Saturday and Sunday (the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day) are not fast days in the Eastern tradition, they are nonetheless included in counting the forty days.19 The Great and Holy Week is considered in the Eastern churches as a separate unit of preparation.


The Gelasian sacramentary denotes Ash Wednesday as caput jejunii, the beginning (head) of Lent, adding the four weekdays preceding the First Sunday in Lent, making exactly forty days, excluding Sundays. At the beginning of the sixth century the fast was extended to seven weeks, adding Quinquagesima (“fifty”), the Sunday before the First Sunday in Lent, resulting in fifty days of preparation for the fifty days of Easter. By the end of the sixth century another Sunday was added to the preparatory period, called Sexagesima (“sixty”), and by the beginning of the seventh century yet another Sunday was added, Septuagesima (“seventy”). Thus, by the time of Gregory the Great (d. 604) a season of pre-Lent had been added to the beginning of Quadragesima, and the preliminary period was sometimes referred to as a narthex to the Quadragesima. The stational liturgies for those three preparatory Sundays were celebrated in the famous churches of Rome’s patron saints: Lawrence (Septuagesima), Paul (Sexagesima), and Peter (Quinquagesima). Moreover, repeated attacks by Goths and Lombards encouraged extended periods of prayer and penitence. The perils of the times mark some of the prayers composed during the invasions and threats and which are still in use. An example is the collect from the Leonine sacramentary Da nobis, quaesumus, Domine, ut et mundi cursus, appointed in the previous lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in the Roman rite, the Fourth Sunday after Trinity in Lutheran use, and the fifth Sunday after Trinity in the Book of Common Prayer.

Grant, O Lord, we beseech thee, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by thy governance, that thy Church may joyfully (p.138) serve thee in all godly quietness; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord....

Canon William Bright said of the prayer, “It seems to have been suggested, like several others in the Leonine, by the disasters of the dying Western Empire.”20 What the Anglican and Lutheran rites call the Collect for Peace, which they both use at the conclusion of Evening Prayer, Deus, a quo sancta desideria, from the Gelasian sacramentary, has proved to be one of the most popular prayers in the Church’s treasury, used in the pre-Reformation Latin rite votive Mass for Peace, Lauds, Vespers, and the Litany. In the Prayer Book translation, borrowed by the Lutherans, now differently revised in the current liturgies, it is:

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior....21

“We cannot but think of the troublous times in the latter half of the fifth century when it was composed—‘when sieges and barbaric invasions made men’s hearts fail for fear, when Rome but narrowly escaped the Huns and did not escape the Vandals; when the Western Empire itself passed away before Odoacer, and Odoacer was overthrown by Theodoric.’”22

The Latin names of the three Sundays of pre-Lent were retained in Anglican and Lutheran use: Septuagesima (“seventy,” more exactly the Sunday within seventy days of Easter, actually sixty-four days before Easter; septuagesima quarta to be precise); Sexagesima (“sixty,” the Sunday within sixty days of Easter, actually fifty-seven days before Easter; quinquagesima septimus to be precise); and Quinquagesima (“fifty,” which is exactly right, fifty days before Easter). “And so in her wisdom and in order to avoid long and cumbersome tags, the Church decided to number by tens rather than by sevens. Who cares if it’s accurate? It is easier to say.”23

The season functioned as a preparation for Lent, a preparation for a preparation, and so the current Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran calendars have eliminated pre-Lent as unnecessary. The logic is simple. Since Lent is itself a season of preparation, to observe an additional time of preparation before Lent seems redundant. Why prepare to prepare? The argument may seem persuasive, but it is not entirely true psychologically or spiritually, because, in fact, we often, in many areas of life, need to prepare to prepare. In the instance of Lent (p.139) that is especially true. We need, before Lent actually begins, to begin thinking about how we will keep the season. How will we use the time to our spiritual benefit? How will we exercise ourselves so that we grow in grace during Lent? The three Sundays before Lent can serve as a warning that the holy season is near and that it is time to give it some thought.

In earlier times pre-Lent was understood as the fast of the clergy, the ministers of the Church leading the way; the people’s fast began two-and-a-half weeks later on Ash Wednesday. Strodach, who recognizes that “There did not seem to be any universal rule in the early period of the Church either as to the length, or manner, of the Lenten Fast,” quotes “one of the medieval writers” who declares that “the monastic orders began the fast with Septuagesima, the Greek Church with Sexagesima, and the secular clergy with Quinquagesima.”24 Strodach suggests that the varying length of the preparation may be attributed to differing ways of counting fast days, some omitting Sundays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from the fast, but all counting forty days of actual fasting.

Pre-Lent was observed as an extension of Lent: the liturgical color was violet (although in Lutheran use the color often was green to distinguish the season from Lent itself25); the Gloria in excelsis and alleluia were omitted from the Mass, the Te Deum omitted from the Office. This expansion of the penitential season of Lent, deemed already sufficiently long, is a further reason for the suppression of pre-Lent. Maxwell Johnson has suggested that in the Roman rite, the days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday in Lent may be understood as the remains of pre-Lent, Lent understood as extending from the First Sunday to the evening of Maundy Thursday and the beginning of the Triduum.26

In the East, there is a corresponding four-Sunday (three-week) preparation for Lent. The fourth Sunday before Lent, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, teaches humility; the third Sunday before Lent, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, teaches repentance; the second Sunday before Lent, the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday), begins the abstinence from meat; and the Sunday before Lent, the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare Sunday), begins the abstinence from dairy products. The Great Fast begins on the following day, Clean Monday (the Monday before the Western Ash Wednesday when the Eastern and Western date of Easter coincides).

A related feature of the development of the season was the cultural celebration of Mardi Gras (“fat Tuesday”) in Gallic lands, a time to use up any remaining fat in preparation for Lent, and Carnival (farewell to meat) in Southern Europe27 and Germany (Karneval; Fasching in Bavaria and Austria, from Fastschank, pouring the fast-tide drink) extending for some days before Lent. In more sober England, the day before Ash Wednesday was Shrove Tuesday, (p.140) a day for being shriven, absolved of sin, before the penitential time began.28 A socially useful time of release before the onset of the Lenten discipline, Carnival may be understood as more than a period of feasting and revelry. It is also a celebration of the common fate of the members of the human race. Its laughter is an act of acceptance, protesting the fact of universal mortality and laughing in acceptance of the democracy of death.29 Thus, Carnival may be understood as an appropriate transition to Ash Wednesday and Lent.30

Ash Wednesday

In the present form of the Church’s calendar, without a pre-Lenten period, Ash Wednesday (and therefore Lent) may be seen as a beginning of the liturgical year. Without any preparation, Ash Wednesday always comes as an unexpected interruption. Into the richness and pleasure of living suddenly comes the grim reminder, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It was God’s word to our first parents in the garden of paradise after their disobedience, and it is God’s word still to us all. Abruptly cutting into life when we are enjoying it the most comes the warning, “You too must die.” It is a fact of life that we would rather not face, so we turn aside and raise our voices and laugh a little louder and quicken the pace of our pleasure; but still the hollow voice insists, “You too shall die.” The certainty that no life lasts forever is always there, jumping out from behind an automobile in a near-accident, waiting in the corner of a hospital room. There is an inevitability about this unwelcome fact that makes it upsetting, sometimes frightening. The truth that Ash Wednesday will not let us forget is that life—our life—will someday end.31

Ash Wednesday with its disruptive intrusion into our pleasure may well be considered the real beginning of the liturgical year. It marks the one abrupt change in the yearly cycle. Advent follows without a break from the final weeks after Pentecost and takes up the proclamation of Christ the King on the Sunday immediately following, which is the First Sunday in Advent, “Behold your King comes to you.” The secular New Year’s Day does not mark a new beginning in the Church’s calendar; for the Church, January 1 is the eighth day of Christmas. But Ash Wednesday is not a continuation or extension of the themes of the time after the Epiphany or even a bridge between Epiphany and Easter. It is not related to the recalling of the stages in the life of Christ. It comes as an unexpected interruption, almost without warning. It always catches us up short with its unwelcome message of mortality. But it is with the reminder of this solemn day, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” that Lent begins, and with it, in a sense, a new Church year. The Jews conclude the High Holy Days marking the beginning of their new year (p.141) with the most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For Christians, the year may be understood to begin with what may be described as the Christian version of the Day of Atonement, Ash Wednesday.

It is in keeping with this understanding of the character of the day that the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship introduced the use of black as the liturgical color for Ash Wednesday. In Roman and in general European use, the color of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday is violet (purple), the color of penitence and mourning. In English practice, Lent was often marked by the use of the Lenten array, unbleached white linen vestments, paraments, and veils for statues, crosses, and paintings, sometimes embroidered with a simple red cross. The intent was to make the items so covered blend into the white walls of the interior of the church. The leaves of a triptych were often painted the same white on the outside so that, when closed throughout Lent, the altarpiece would, in effect, be blotted out. The intent was to encourage the interior life during the holy season.32

The Revised Common Lectionary and the Roman liturgy have restored the early baptismal emphasis of Lent. The First Sunday in Lent was the time for the enrollment of candidates for baptism at the Easter Vigil. The celebration six days later of Ember Saturday with six prophecies and Epistles and Gospels took place the night between Saturday and Sunday, making the Second Sunday in Lent a “vacant” Sunday, a day without its own appointed Propers.33 The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays in Lent were occasions for the scrutinies (exorcisms and instruction) as part of the final preparation of the “elect” (see Matt. 24:31) for baptism at the Vigil of Easter. Often accompanied by exorcism to expel the demons and insufflation to breathe in the Holy Spirit to replace the unholy spirits who had been driven out (see Matt. 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26), the scrutinies were designed to scrutinize the candidates, examining them closely to determine whether any aspects of their lives still needed to be set free from the influence of sin and evil. Generally the scrutinies were public examinations of the progress made by the elect in their conversion to Christ and the Church. A descendant of the scrutinies lingered into modern times in the public examination of candidates for Confirmation in Lutheran churches.

The number of scrutinies varied. In Rome there were originally three, celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays in Lent in close connection with the readings from John’s Gospel appointed for those Sundays. By the Middle Ages the scrutinies had become seven and were shifted to the weekdays during the last three weeks of Lent. The adult catechumenate declined and eventually disappeared, and the scrutinies were compressed into the pre-baptismal rites at the church door at the beginning of the baptismal liturgy for infants. (p.142)

During the twentieth century the baptism of infants could no longer be assumed, and unbaptized adults sought admission to the Church. This encouraged the restoration of the original baptismal pattern in the 1972 Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. As in early Roman practice, the scrutinies include intercessions, prayers of exorcism, and dismissal from the Eucharistic assembly. During the week the scrutinies are followed by the traditio symboli, the “handing over” of the [Apostles’] Creed, that is, teaching it to the candidates and having them “hand it back” (redditio) by repeating what they have memorized; the presentation of the Lord’s Prayer (week five) in the same manner; (by the end of the sixth century in Rome the Gospels were also handed over, the deacon reading the beginning of each Gospel and giving a brief commentary); and the final rites of preparation on Holy Saturday morning.

The ashes that give Ash Wednesday, in Latin dies cinerum (day of ashes), its name are an extraordinarily rich symbol. They speak of judgment and God’s condemnation of sin; of human frailty and our total dependence on God for life. They anticipate what will be said at the burial of every Christian, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Ashes remind us and all who see them of humiliation and of repentance. Moreover, ashes were an ancient material for cleansing in the absence of soap; therefore ashes show cleanness and purification. They may serve as a penitential substitute for water. Water is essential for existence and for the maintenance of life. Water both stifles and refreshes, drowns and makes alive; so ashes tell of both death and renewal. They have therefore a healthful, medicinal effect: ashes can heal. In the previous Roman Catholic form for the blessing of the ashes the first prayer asks,

Almighty and everlasting God, we beseech thee to spare them that are penitent, and to be favorable to them that call upon thee. Vouchsafe, we pray thee, to send thy holy Angel from heaven to bless and sanctify these ashes, that they may be a wholesome medicine to all them that humbly call upon thy holy Name....”34

The sobering exhortation of Ash Wednesday actually conceals something hopeful and encouraging. The words associated with the imposition of ashes transport us back to the moment of the fundamental break in our relationship with our Creator and therefore to the possibility of a fundamental healing in that relationship. We are dust, but dust lovingly formed by God, dust into which he has breathed his Spirit. Receiving the ashes on our head is an act of humility, but it also at the same time lays claim to the life-giving love and grace (p.143) that was bestowed on that dust. God’s love for us does not end when we in death return to the dust. He who formed us once out of dust will do so again. Our life, now and in the resurrection, is the love of God that can make even dust live.35 Thus the imposition of ashes cannot be fully understood unless it is seen in the light of Easter.

There is also an urgency about the call to repentance. It is not to be delayed or put off. The responsory sung at the blessing of ashes in the Roman Missal urges, “Let us change for the better those things wherein we have sinned in ignorance, lest suddenly, overtaken by the day of death, we seek a place of repentance, and cannot find any.” A verse from Baruch 3:2 provides words to say: “Hear, Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against you,” and Psalm 79:9, “Help us, O God of our salvation; and for the honor of your Name, O Lord, deliver us.” Lutherans with long memories may remember the absolution in the Order for Public Confession in the Common Service Book (made optional in the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal), “I therefore declare unto you who do truly repent and believe in him the entire forgiveness of all your sins: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, by the same authority, I declare unto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not forgiven their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquities upon them, if they turn not from their evil ways, and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended” (pp. 242-3). Others may remember Isaiah’s warning, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isa. 55:6). We are to take up the work of Lent while we have opportunity, before it is too late.

At the time of the Reformation, both the Anglican and Lutheran reformers discontinued the imposition of ashes. It is often said that they did so because they disapproved of the blessing of things rather than people. More likely, since the very use of ashes was discontinued, not simply their blessing, it was because of the apparent contradiction of Jesus’s injunction in the Gospel for the day [Matt. 6:16-21], “wash your face.” In the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, what was called Commination against Sinners replaced the traditional medieval rites, drawn from the penitential portion of the medieval rites of ashes and intended for use “Divers [i.e., diverse] Times in the Year.” The form began with an exhortation during which the curses were solemnly recited.

Brethren, in the primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as were notorious sinners were (p.144) put to open penance and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others admonished by their example might be more afraid to offend. In the stead whereof, until the said discipline be restored again (which thing is much to be wished) it is thought good, that at this time (in your presence) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the twenty-seventh chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture; and that ye should answer to every sentence, Amen... .

Cursed is the man that maketh any carved or molten image, an abomination to the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place to worship it. Amen.

Cursed is he that curseth his father and mother. Amen.

Cursed is he that removeth away the mark of his neighbor’s land. Amen.

Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way. Amen.

Cursed is he that letteth [hinders] in judgment the right of the stranger, of them that be fatherless, and of widows. Amen.

Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbor secretly. Amen.

Cursed is he that lieth with his neighbor’s wife. Amen.

Cursed is he that taketh reward to slay the soul of innocent blood. Amen.

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, and taketh man for his defense, and in his heart goeth forth from the Lord. Amen.

Cursed are the unmerciful, the fornicators, and adulterers, and the covetous persons, the worshipers of images, slanderers, drunkards, extortioners. Amen.

Psalm 51, suffrages, and prayers follow. The form was modified in the 1892 and 1928 American Prayer Books, omitting the curses, as “A Penitential Office for Ash Wednesday.”36

The Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Roman sacramentary, the Book of Common Prayer, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) follows the sermon, giving the preacher an opportunity to explain and reflect on the meaning of the ashes. The 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, following the 1570 Roman Missal, puts the imposition of ashes at the very beginning of the liturgy, making it the first act of Lent.

The Collect in the Prayer Book, also in English-speaking Lutheran use since 1888, is by Archbishop Cranmer and is “a prayer of rare beauty and balance...a prayer which is one of the gems of collect literature.”37 (p.145)

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The prayer is drawn in part from the antiphon of the Introit of the Mass for Ash Wednesday (Misereris omnium), Wisdom 11:24, 23, 26, “You love all things that exist, and detest none of the things you have made. You overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent, and spare all things, O Lord.” The opening prayer in the Roman sacramentary, from the Leonine sacramentary, provides insight into the purpose of Lenten fasting.

Grant us, O Lord, to enter on the service of our Christian warfare with holy fasting; that, as we are to fight against spiritual powers of wickedness, we may be fortified by the aid of self-denial; through Jesus Christ our Lord....38

In the 1570 Roman Missal this collect concluded the imposition of ashes; the Mass then began with the Introit.

The Revised Common Lectionary provides one set of readings for all three years of the lectionary cycle.

  • Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. Return to the Lord your God
  • or Isa. 58:1-12. Is such the fast that I choose?
  • Psalm 51:1-17. Prayer for cleansing and forgiveness
  • 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10. Now is the day of salvation
  • Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21. Beware of practicing your piety to be seen by others
The reading from the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel continue the appointments in the previous lectionaries of the Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran churches: Joel 2:12-19 (12-17 in the Prayer Book); Matt. 6:16-21. The alternative reading from Isaiah 58 is from the lectionary in the 1979 American Prayer Book.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer was the first American Prayer Book to include proper prefaces for Lent. The first, especially appropriate for the First Sunday in Lent, is: (p.146)

“through Jesus Christ our Lord; who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin. By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”

The sources are Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:15; the 1929 Scottish revision of the Prayer Book; the Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India (1963); and the 1967 Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. The second preface is, “You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you.” It is a paraphrase by Howard Galley of the first preface for Lent in the Roman sacramentary and especially appropriate for Ash Wednesday and most Sundays in Lent, expressing “powerfully the meaning and purpose of the season and the disciplines which it entails.”39 The Lutheran Book of Worship borrowed this preface, altering it slightly; Evangelical Lutheran Worship made further alterations. Previous Lutheran books during Lent used the Preface of the Cross appointed in the Roman Missal for Passiontide and feasts of the Holy Cross. The Roman sacramentary now provides a proper preface for each of the five Sundays in Lent based on the traditional themes of those Sundays and four others for Lenten weekdays and Sundays in Years B and C.

In Lent, in place of a seasonal blessing, a solemn prayer over the people is used, the deacon, or in the absence of a deacon the celebrant first saying, “Bow down before the Lord.” The people kneel, and, on Ash Wednesday, the celebrant says,

Grant, most merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve you with a quiet mind; through Christ our Lord.

The prayer is from the Gelasian sacramentary and was appointed in previous Prayer Books for the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity (the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost in the Roman Missal and the twentieth Sunday after Trinity in Lutheran books.) “The mercy of God is two-fold: pardon, or the compassionate overlooking of our sins; and peace, or freedom from the torment of sin and from anxiety and worry.”40 This prayer is appointed in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services.

Lent as Pilgrimage

A principal organizing image for Lent is the evocative picture of a pilgrimage. It is, of course, an important image for the Bible. Abraham is the archetypal (p.147) pilgrim, directed by God to leave his home and relatives, all that was familiar and comfortable, and go on an epic journey in search of spiritual truth. Without hesitation he set out, not yet knowing the destination and not yet comprehending the purpose of the long and difficult journey. His condition became the condition of all his descendants, who are described by the writer to the Hebrews as “strangers and pilgrims” (Heb. 11:13 AV) on earth, “resident aliens” living on land owned by God (see Gen 23:4; Lev. 25:23; 1 Chron. 29:15). A ninth-century Latin hymn sings of the church building, “strangers and pilgrims, seeking homes eternal, pass through its portals.”41 This world is not our home; the promised land of heaven is “our true native land” (as the Eucharistic hymn “O saving Victim”42 calls it). Our life here is a journey through this passing world to our heavenly home. The Prayer of the Day for the First Sunday in Lent in the Lutheran Book of Worship derives from this image. “O Lord God, you led your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of your Church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come.” (The prayer would be improved by a request not simply to walk toward but to arrive safely at the intended destination.)

The journey begins, as it did for Abraham and his family, with turning in a new direction, with what the Greek New Testament calls metanoia, turning around, conversion. It requires a separation from one place and set of conditions and putting in place of them a concentration on the goal of the journey. It requires not just looking around but looking ahead with focus and determination. The Lenten pilgrimage is a journey to a specific holy place, Jesus’s cross and tomb and to the life that lies beyond.

We may make the trip without actually leaving our city or town and accomplish the journey as a spiritual pilgrimage made in heart and mind. We are called to leave those places in our lives where we are not truly at home or at peace. One of the great purposes of Lent is to bring us to ourselves, so that, like the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable (Luke 15:11-32), we may recognize that the condition in which we find ourselves is not our true home and that as comfortable as we may usually feel, we are in fact aliens in a foreign land and need to come home. So the Lenten pilgrimage is made with a clear purpose in mind. It is a journey home, although, as it was for Abraham, the home to which we go is a place we have never yet been.

This Lenten pilgrimage is accomplished not merely within our mind without leaving our present location. It requires (if we are able to make it) a physical journey. We must decide to leave home and get to a specific holy place, our church. There ritually we are in Jerusalem, and at the cross and tomb of Jesus. The journey is repeated week after week, year after year, but, one hopes, it is an (p.148) ever-new experience with still more discoveries to be made, still more insights to be gained, still greater depths to be explored each time we make the journey.

The pilgrimage, we learn as we walk along, becomes an all-embracing, all-consuming activity. When we are on a pilgrimage, everything can be understood to be part of the way. Every step is as important as the last. Everyone and everything we encounter along the way is part of the pilgrim experience. A good bit of the route may seem ordinary and prosaic, but that does not mean that it is insignificant.

When God renewed the covenant with Abraham, changing his name from “Abram” to “Abraham” (Gen. 17, the Revised Common Lectionary first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent), God said to Abraham, “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). The verb “to walk” is used in this way throughout the Bible, in both Testaments, and it is often translated or interpreted as “to live.” Walking, however, is a more active and suggestive verb. It implies movement: living is not a static activity. Walking also implies having a clear direction. Walking is not a casual stroll or an aimless meandering; it is going to a specific place with a specific intention. Walking before God (Ps. 116:9) is walking in God’s law, going in the way of God’s commandments, walking carefully along a prescribed path. “And when you turn to the right, or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isa. 30:21). It is walking with God as with a friend (Micah 6:8). Nearly always, it should be noted, such walking is a community activity. “It is you, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng” (Ps. 55:13-14). Such companionship on the journey affects our behavior. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm” (Prov. 13:20).

In the New Testament, the counterpart to Abraham is the Virgin Mary. She was, like Abraham, summoned by God to be the progenitor not just of a new family but of a new race, those who become part of her Son, the new Adam. Abraham was called to leave home and to travel to a distant and as yet unrevealed place. Mary, too, received a transforming visit from God, but it was not necessary for her to travel far geographically. Her vocation was to be carried out where she was. There was a visit to her cousin Elisabeth in the hill country and the flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous orders, but mostly she stayed home. Her spiritual journey, however, was no less revolutionary than that of her distant ancestor Abraham. The pilgrimage of Lent, therefore, need not be geographical, but that does not lessen its call to a radical redirection and transformation of our lives.

Worshippers across denominational lines are familiar with the stirring Welsh hymn “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” (“Guide me, O thou great (p.149) Redeemer” in Hymns Ancient and Modern and The English Hymnal) with its imagery of the signs of God’s care in the wilderness, bread from heaven (manna), water from the rock, the pillar of fire and cloud, the epithets of God as Strength (Ps. 46:1; 73:26; 1 Sam 15:29 in the AV; Ps. 140:7) and Shield (Gen 15:1; Ps. 33:20; 84:11; 115:9; Deut. 33:29). The English translation dates from 1771.

Less widely known is a hymn that Christian Gregor (1723-1801) recast from two one-stanza hymns by Nicolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), creating a new hymn Jesu, geh’ vor an, which took the biblical image of pilgrimage as the basis for an impressive portrayal of the Christian life. The hymn, which became a favorite of Moravians and Lutherans, was translated by Jane Laurie Borthwick in 1846.

  • Jesus, still lead on,
  • Till our rest be won;
  • And, although the way be cheerless,
  • We will follow, calm and fearless;
  • Guide us by thy hand
  • To our fatherland.
We go by often cheerless paths through fearsome places following our Leader, by whom we are urged forward despite our faltering steps and weary condition. The memory of Jesus in the wilderness tempted by Satan is close at hand.

  • If the way be drear,
  • If the foe be near,
  • Let not faithless fears o’ertake us,
  • Let not faith and hope forsake us;
  • For through many a foe
  • To our home we go.
What keeps us going on the long and difficult path are the two gifts of faith and hope, both centered on the goal of the journey, our home, described with the evocative German word, Vaterland, our fatherland.

When we seek relief

From a long-felt grief,

When temptations come alluring

Make us patient and enduring;

Show us that bright shore

Where we weep no more.


We need both patience and endurance on the long pilgrimage, repeatedly refreshed by the glimpse of the bright shore where all sorrow is forgotten and where unending joy abounds.

  • Jesus, still lead on,
  • Till our rest be won;
  • Heavenly Leader, still direct us,
  • Still support, console, protect us,
  • Till we safely stand
  • In our fatherland!43
The direction, support, consolation, and protection of Christ, who in his human nature has gone this way before us and who now leads us home, is continually invoked until we stand safe in our home and native land.

The pilgrimage image and the praise of the natural world are joined in a striking hymn by Katherine K. Davis (1892-1980). We are put in the company not only of ancient Israel in their wilderness travel but also of everything in creation.

  • Let all things now living
  • A song of thanksgiving
  • To God the creator triumphantly raise,
  • Who fashioned and made us,
  • Protected and stayed us,
  • Who still guides us on to the end of our days.
  • God’s banners are o’er us,
  • His light goes before us,
  • A pillar of fire shining forth in the night,
  • Till shadows have vanished

And darkness is banished,

  • As forward we travel from light into light.
  • His law he enforces,
  • The stars in their courses
  • And sun its orbit obediently shine;
  • The hills and the mountains,
  • The rivers and fountains,
  • The deeps of the ocean proclaim him divine.
  • We too should be voicing
  • Our love and rejoicing; (p.151)
  • With glad adoration a song let us raise
  • Till all things now living
  • Unite in thanksgiving:
  • “To God in the highest, hosanna and praise!”44
We are reminded that as the sun and stars always obey the laws of God, so should we, and that as the mountains, rivers, and seas praise the divine majesty of their maker, so we must join their proclamation of God’s praise until all created things, the natural world and we who are a part of it, unite in one grand hymn.

In a sense, Lent does not bring anything new, only an intensification of what are already the constant themes and elements of the Christian life. The solemn season begins with a call to conversion, a summons to travel a different road, the way that leads to God. It is a road that leads out of the confinement of our mundane existence and into the uplands where wide vistas open before those who travel this way. The difficult path expands the horizon that has been reduced and limited by sin, which warps sinners into themselves. Lent encourages us to stand spiritually upright (see Luke 13:11-13) and open our eyes to see others who travel with us, to perceive larger possibilities for our lives, to feel the exhilaration of making our way to our true home.

It is customary in many places to begin the liturgy on the First Sunday in Lent, and sometimes also on subsequent Lenten Sundays, with the Great Litany, sung in procession. Singing a litany in procession is an action as ancient as the litanaic form itself. Since litanies were often prayed for a specific purpose, the people would process from the church to the place where that purpose manifested itself. If, for example, the intention was to pray God’s blessing on the harvest, the procession would move from the church out into the fields and back again. Thus, movement became associated with this form of prayer, and to this day when the Litany is prayed, it is usually accompanied by movement. Moreover, such a practice, walking while praying, is a vivid dramatization of the passage through this world toward the world to come. The eventual arrival of the procession at the altar where it concludes is a promise of our safe arrival in heaven if we walk in the appointed way of God.

A text that may well be set over the journey of Lent is Psalm 84:5, in the NRSV translation, “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” In the Prayer Book Psalter, also included in the Lutheran Book of Worship, it is verse 4,

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!

whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.


It is a song of pilgrims longing for the courts of the Lord, making their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, literally going up to the temple set prominently on the temple mount. Their desire to be in the Lord’s house is so strong that even in the demanding journey they can find refreshment: “Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs” (BCP Ps. 84:5). The yearly pilgrimage looks forward to a greater ascent to an exalted temple described in the similar visions of Isaiah (2:2-4) and Micah (4:1-4): In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. It will be a time of obedience to the ways of God, a time of justice and peace in all the earth. Thus the yearly Lenten journey is part of the larger and more inclusive pilgrimage.

An extra-liturgical devotion, the Way of the Cross, developed during the later Middle Ages, arising from the custom of pilgrims in Jerusalem following the traditional route that Jesus took from Pilate’s house to Golgotha, continues its popularity as another method of prayer while moving from station to station throughout the church, following in the steps of Jesus from his condemnation to his burial.45 A vivid yet tender thirteenth-century hymn often accompanies the movement, Stabat mater dolorosa, “At the cross her station keeping.” The hymn gains its power from its point of view, seeing the crucifixion through the eyes of the Victim’s mother.46 The noble hymn, originally intended for devotional use, was popular among the flagellants in the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century it entered various missals as a sequence in preparation for the reading of the Gospel and from 1727 by decree of Benedict XIII was used on the Friday after Passion Sunday (the Fifth Sunday in Lent), the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The biblical sources include John 19:25 (Mary “standing near the cross”) and Luke 2:35 (“a sword will pierce your own soul”).

The First Sunday in Lent

The First Sunday in Lent in all three years of the lectionary cycle focuses on Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. The Introit (Invocabit47 me) is drawn from Psalm 91 in which may be heard the Father speaking to the Son his temptation. The New Revised Standard Version has made the pronouns plural to (p.153) avoid the masculine form and has thus blocked the connection with the principal theme of this Sunday. The antiphon is Psalm 91:15, 16; in the Authorized Version it reads,

Antiphon. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him: and show him my salvation.

Psalm 91:1. He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High:

shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Gloria Patri.

The antiphon is repeated. He shall call upon me...my salvation.

The words that strengthened Christ also give strength to his people. In this song of assurance and trust, earthly blessings mingle with the blessings of the life to come; temporality intersects with eternity. The secret of such confidence is abiding in the shelter that God has provided as sanctuary, the Church.

The Collect in the Gregorian, Sarum, and Roman missals was:

God, you cleanse your Church by the annual observance of Lent: Grant to your family that what they strive to obtain from you by abstinence, they may secure by good works.

“Good works” suggested to the Reformers, Anglican as well as Lutheran, what they condemned as “works righteousness,” “works” being the offensive word and idea. (Perhaps “good deeds” would have softened the offense.) Thomas Cranmer radically revised the ancient Collect “without the Pelagian overtones or the implication that we must strive to obtain the gifts which God is anxious to give to those who seek”.48 In its original (1549) form, the prayer was

O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which livest and reignest....

In the twentieth century, the dualism of body and spirit became suspect, being derived from Greek philosophy rather than from the Bible, and Cranmer’s prayer was replaced in the 1979 American Prayer Book with a revision of an original collect from William Bright’s Ancient Collects (pp. 237-8). (p.154)

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The prayer reflects the Gospel for all three years “and is particularly fitting as we enter this season of penitence in preparation for baptism or for renewal of baptismal vows.”49

Lutheran books replaced the offending medieval collect with another from the Gregorian sacramentary found in the Bamberg (1498), Constance (1505), and Nuremberg (1484) missals:

O Lord, mercifully hear our prayer, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty to defend us from them that rise up against us; through Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.

The translation was made for the 1868 Church Book. The collect was appropriate for the First Sunday in Lent; “Them that rise up against us” could in this context refer to Satan rising up and testing Jesus in the wilderness, and the right hand of God’s majesty can suggest the angelic protection given to Jesus. The 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship introduced the prayer of the day cited above.

The present Roman sacramentary (1970) uses a collect from the Gelasian sacramentary, which is an invitation to the imitation of Christ:

Grant us, almighty God, that through the yearly observance of Lent we may enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ and follow his mind by conduct worthy of our calling; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The translation used here is from William Bright’s Ancient Collects.50

The Revised Common Lectionary appoints these readings for the First Sunday in Lent.

Year A

Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7. The fall: sin enters the world

Psalm 32. The joy of being forgiven

Rom. 5:12-19. The old Adam and the new Adam

Matt. 4:1-11. Jesus rejects Satan’s temptation (p.155)

Year B

Gen. 9:8-17. The covenant with Noah

Psalm 25:1-10. Prayer for guidance and protection

1 Peter 3:18-22. Victory for the baptized

Mark 1:12-15. Temptation and ministry

Year C

Deut. 26:1-11. The gift of the promised land

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16. God’s protection

Rom. 10:8b-13. Salvation for all

Luke 4:1-13. Jesus’s initial rebuff of the devil

Joseph Sittler made the observation,

It is an ancient requirement of the Church that we enter the forty days of Lent through the dark wilderness where Jesus confronted the devil. Here two absolute wills met. The will of Jesus was unity, obedience, the world as God meant it, sacrifice, and the service of God. The will of the devil was disunity, arrogance, the world as man would have it, accommodation, and the will of man. The Church knows exactly what it is doing when it takes us this way, into and through the wilderness.

This wilderness-meeting...is both report and re-enactment. It is report: for this struggle of the Servant of God...actually took place. And it is re-enactment too. For that old...story from God is for my story. It is then—and it is now. And we preach it and hear it and ponder it to the end that we may re-enact it.51

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, at vespers on Cheesefare Sunday, the day before Great Lent begins, a hymn is sung in which the voice of Adam is heard speaking for the whole human race. First he praises the extraordinary and unmerited kindness of God.

  • The Lord my creator took me as dust from the earth,
  • and formed me into a living being,
  • breathing into me the breath of life.
  • He honored me,
  • setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible,
  • and made me companion of the angels.
Then comes the fall.


  • But Satan the deceiver,
  • using the serpent as instrument,
  • enticed me by food,
  • separated me from the glory of God,
  • and gave me over to the earth,
  • and to the lowest depths of the earth.
  • But as Master and compassionate, call me back again.
  • ...bring me into Paradise again.
It was by food, the forbidden fruit, that Satan ruined us, and so during Lent we fast and abstain from various kinds of food, as Jesus, whom Satan attempted also to entice with food, suggesting that Jesus in his hunger turn stones into bread. By fasting we are one with Jesus in the desert, who is one with us in our desolation. Food separated us from our creator, but in the wonderful way of God food, abundant food, will be characteristic of the heavenly kingdom, the messianic banquet when all will be restored.

A sixth-century Latin hymn has not yet been infected with the gloom that later came to shadow the season of Lent and speaks of the celebration of the glory of these forty days.

  • The glory of these forty days
  • We celebrate with songs of praise;
  • For Christ, through whom all things were made,
  • Himself has fasted and has prayed.
Christ gathered into himself the experience of his people through the ages, and the hymn continues, naming the exemplars of fasting and prayer.

  • Alone and fasting Moses saw
  • The loving God who gave the Law;
  • And to Elijah, fasting, came
  • The steeds and chariots of flame.
The references are to Exod. 24:15-18 and 2 Kings 2:1-12 (The biblical account does not speak of Elijah fasting in preparation for his being taken up to heaven, but it does note his going without food for forty days in 1 Kings 19:8.) Further examples are provided, Daniel and John the Baptist (as “the friend of the bridegroom” see John 3:29).

  • So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
  • Delivered from the lions’ might; (p.157)

And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became

  • The herald of Messiah’s name.
  • Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
  • Full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
  • Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
  • And give us joy to see thy face.52
We are not alone in our struggle against the forces of evil. Joshua in his farewell address to the people of Israel encouraged them, “One of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, as he promised you” (Joshua 23:10).53 A hymn attributed to Gregory the Great (540-604) encourages those who begin the observance of Lent by reminding them that they are not alone in their struggle,
  • Now let us all with one accord,
  • In company with ages past,
  • Keep vigil with our heavenly Lord
  • In his temptation and his fast.54
A further source of strength is keeping the goal of the season of penance always in view: Easter. Claudia Frances Hernaman’s familiar Lenten hymn does that effectively.

  • Lord, who throughout these forty days
  • For us didst fast and pray,
  • Teach us with thee to mourn our sins
  • And close by thee to stay.
  • ...
  • Abide with us, that so, this life
  • Of suffering overpast,
  • An Easter of unending joy
  • We may attain at last.55
The Responsory appointed for the Office of Readings on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday teaches
  • This time of fasting opens the gates of heaven to us.
  • Let us welcome it and pray
  • that when Easter comes
  • we may share the joy of the risen Lord. (p.158)
  • In all we do let us show that we are the servants of God,
  • that when Easter comes
  • we may share the joy of the risen Lord.56
Throughout the time of penance the eyes of the faithful who attend to the voice of the Church are to be fixed on the goal of the journey.

The prayer over the people for the First Lenten Sunday given in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services is: “Grant, almighty God, that your people may recognize their weakness and put their whole trust in your strength, so that they may rejoice for ever in the protection of your loving providence; through Christ our Lord.” The antiphon to the Magnificat at vespers on the First Sunday in Lent, remembering the Gospel read at the Eucharist, asks, “Watch over us, eternal Savior; do not let the cunning tempter seize us. We place all our trust in your unfailing help.”57 In our struggle against sin and Satan, we are to imitate the trust in God’s strength shown by Christ in his temptation.

The First Sunday in Lent serves as an overture to the Paschal mystery of Easter: Jesus’s struggle in the wilderness (fasting, hunger, temptation) but also his victory over powers hostile to God, as well as an anticipation of his glorification (“angels came and ministered to him”).58

The Second Sunday in Lent

The theme of Christ’s hidden glory is presented in the varying liturgical traditions on this Sunday. The Second Sunday in Lent in the previous as well as the present Roman lectionary repeats the Gospel of Ember Saturday, the Transfiguration. The three figures, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, are all models of fasting: Jesus alone in the desert for forty days, Moses alone on Mount Sinai for forty days (Exodus 24:18), Elijah alone encountering God at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8-18) after a forty-day journey. The sight of Jesus transfigured is to strengthen his followers in their Lenten discipline by a proleptic vision of the Son of Man raised from the dead (Matt. 17:9).

The antiphon of the Introit in previous books, Reminiscere, comes from Psalm 25:6, 2b, 22 and calls upon God to remember the promises of protection heard the previous Sunday.

Antiphon. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,

for they have been from of old. Do not let my enemies exult over me.

God of Israel, deliver us out of all our troubles.

Psalm 25:1, 2a. To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you (p.159)

I trust; do not let me be put to shame. Gloria Patri.

The antiphon is repeated. Remember your mercy...our troubles.

The Collect appointed in previous Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran books, reflecting its assignment to this Sunday in the Gregorian sacramentary, continued the plea of the Introit. Its Lutheran form is close to the Latin; the Prayer Book expanded several phrases (see below, where the Collect is appointed in the present American Prayer Book for the Third Sunday in Lent).

O God, who seest that of ourselves we have no strength: Keep us both outwardly and inwardly; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord....

It is another prayer in which the troublous times in Italy are reflected. The collect in the present Roman sacramentary is a very fine Mozarabic prayer that further explicates the selection of the Transfiguration theme for this Sunday.

O God, you commanded us to listen to your beloved Son: Nourish us inwardly with your Word of life, and purify the eyes of our spirit, that we may rejoice in the sight of your glory; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord....59

The Gospel for each of the three Sundays of the lectionary cycle reports the Transfiguration.

Year A. Matt. 17:1-9. Transfiguration

Year B. Mark 9:2-10. This is my beloved Son

Year C. Luke 9:28-36. Transfiguration of Christ.

Moses and Elijah both fasted forty days, both ascended the holy mountain, both are appropriately here with Jesus in lofty conversation. And, at least in earlier times, those who are preparing to be baptized will wear the white robes of baptism at Easter.

The Anglican and Lutheran calendars have employed the Transfiguration theme on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, two weeks prior to this Sunday. The 1979 American Prayer Book appoints a Collect from the Missale Gallicanum vetus, Gelasian, and the Gregorian sacramentaries in (p.160) which it is used in the Good Friday Bidding Prayer for schismatics and heretics. Here “it refers to those who have abandoned the practice of the Christian faith.”60

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.

The Lutheran Book of Worship adapted the prayer for its own use.

The Revised Common Lectionary appoints these readings.

Year A

Gen. 12:1-4. The call of Abraham

Psalm 121. Assurance of God’s protection

Rom. 4:1-5, 13-17. The example of Abraham

John 3:1-17. Nicodemus visits Jesus

or Matt. 17:1-9. The transfiguration

Year B

Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16. God’s covenant with Abraham

Psalm 22:23-31. Dominion belongs to the Lord

Rom. 4:13-25. God’s promise realized through faith

Mark 8:31-38. Jesus foretells his passion

or Mark 9:2-9. The transfiguration

Year C

Gen. 15:1-12, 17-18. God’s covenant with Abram

Psalm 27. Song of confidence

Phil. 3:17-4:1. Citizenship in heaven

Luke 13:31-35. Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem.

or Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a). The transfiguration

The role of Father Abraham, ancestor of all the faithful, is prominent in these readings, but other themes are also introduced, notably the passion.

The prayer over the people for the Second Sunday in Lent in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services is the prayer over the people appointed in the 1570 Roman Missal for Saturday of the second week in Lent. “Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord.” (p.161)

The Third Sunday in Lent

Having diverged for a Sunday the three rites come together with a common point of view on the Third Sunday in Lent. The antiphon of the Introit (Oculi mei), like the previous Introit, is from Psalm 25, this time verses 15 and 16.

Antiphon. My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.

Psalm 25:1, 2. To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in youI trust; do not let me be put to shame. Gloria Patri.

The antiphon is repeated: My eyes...and afflicted.

The individual petitioner is a frail creature, a small bird caught in a net, helpless unless God intervenes.

The collect in the Roman sacramentary is from the Gelasian sacramentary.

O God, source of all mercy and goodness, in almsgiving, fasting, and prayer you have shown us a remedy for sin: Mercifully hear us as we confess our weakness, and, when we are bowed down by the burden of our guilt, lift up our hearts with the assurance of your mercy; through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son....

The Book of Common Prayer appoints a Collect from the Gregorian sacramentary where it was appointed for the Second Sunday in Lent as it was in previous Anglican and Lutheran books.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

In Lutheran use, the collect was strengthened by the deletion of redundancies: “O God, who seest that of ourselves we have no strength: Keep us both outwardly and inwardly; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” The Latin original has the strength of sharp antithesis tersely (p.162) put in a verbal parallel: Muniamur in corpore...mundemur in mente, defended in body...cleansed in mind.61

The Revised Common Lectionary appoints these readings.

Year A

Exod. 17:1-7. Water from the rock

Psalm 95. A call to worship and obedience

Rom. 5:1-11. The results of justification

John 4:5-42. The woman of Samaria at the well

Year B

Exod. 20:1-17. The Ten Commandments

Psalm 19. God’s glory in creation and the Law

1 Cor. 1:18-25. Christ the power and wisdom of God

John 2:13-22. Jesus cleanses the temple

Year C

Isa. 55:1-9. An invitation to abundant life

Psalm 63:1-8. Comfort and assurance in God’s presence

1 Cor. 10:1-13. Warning from Israel’s history

Luke 13:1-9. Repentance and the barren fig tree.

The Gospel in Year A is the traditional reading for this Sunday in ancient lectionaries preparing candidates for baptism. Jesus is the well of living water; the woman, an outsider and of sullied reputation, responds in faith to Jesus’s reaching out to gather her as a promise of forgiveness and of the inclusion of the nations in the kingdom.

The prayer over the people is simplicity itself. “Look mercifully on this your family, Almighty God, that by your great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore; through Christ our Lord.” It is the Gregorian collect appointed in previous Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman books for Passion Sunday, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The Roman sacramentary appoints a collect assigned in the 1570 Roman Missal to Thursday in the third week of Lent. “Direct the hearts of your faithful people, O Lord, and in your mercy grant that they, abiding in love of you and of their neighbors, may fulfill the whole of your commands; through Christ our Lord.” The prayer reflects Rom. 13:10, “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” and such love of God and neighbor is one of the principal works of Lent.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

When Lent began on the Monday following the First Sunday in Lent, the Fourth Sunday marked the exact mid-point of the season: eighteen weekdays (p.163) preceding (Monday through Saturday of weeks 1, 2, and 3) and eighteen weekdays to follow (Monday through Saturday of weeks 4, 5, and 6). When Lent was extended to make a full forty days, this Sunday continued to be observed as mid-Lent. The Mass and the Sunday bore the name Laetare, from the first word of the Introit, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all you who love her” (Isa. 66:10). It was celebrated as Refreshment Sunday (the Gospel was John 6:1-15, the feeding of the multitude), a brief lessening of the intensity of the discipline of Lent as an encouragement to the faithful not to lose heart, to persevere, and to continue the arduous journey to its goal. In England this Sunday was Mothering Sunday, from the Epistle then appointed, Gal. 4:21-5:1a (“the Jerusalem above...is our mother”). The day was observed by visiting the cathedral, the mother church of the diocese, and also the church where one was baptized, and also one’s own mother.

The Antiphon of the Introit, Laetare Jerusalem, is from Isa. 66:10.

Antiphon. Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her;

rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be

satisfied from her consoling breast.

Psalm 122:1. I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the

Lord.” Gloria Patri.

The antiphon is repeated: Rejoice with Jerusalem...her consoling breast.

The invitation to joy is not only an encouragement to those undergoing Lenten discipline and a correction to those who find it gloomy and depressing. In it may be heard the conversation of the Church and the catechumens who were being prepared during Lent for their baptism. Children were coming to their mother for necessary nourishment; catechumens were being invited into the embrace of the Church and the house of God. An insight attributed to Leon Bloy declares, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God.”

The collect in the previous rites was drawn from the Gregorian sacramentary.

Grant, we beseech thee, almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord....

The prayer was thought too gloomily medieval and inappropriate for Refreshment Sunday and was therefore replaced in all three rites. The opening (p.164) prayer in the Roman sacramentary combines a Gelasian collect with phrases from a sermon by Leo the Great.

Lord God, in a wonderful manner you reconcile humankind to yourself through your only Son, the eternal Word: Grant that your Christian people may press on toward the Easter sacraments with lively faith and ready hearts; through our Lord Jesus Christ....62

The people are reminded of the goal of their Lenten pilgrimage and encouraged by the thought of the celebration of Easter and its sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. The American Prayer Book, which appointed John 6:4-15 as the Gospel in Year B (continued from the previous lectionary), Jesus’s feeding of the great crowd, uses a revision of a prayer by Frederick Brodie Macnutt in The Prayer Manual (1952).

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The living bread from heaven sustains the people through their Lenten fast. The Lutheran Book of Worship radically revised the traditional collect.

God of all mercy, by your power to heal and to forgive, graciously cleanse us from all sin and make us strong; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord....

The result was a remarkably bland prayer.

The Revised Common Lectionary appoints these readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.

Year A

1 Sam. 16:1-13. David is anointed king

Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd

Eph. 5:8-14. Live as children of light

John 9:1-41. The healing of the man born blind

Year B

Numb. 21:4-9. The bronze serpent lifted on a pole (p.165)

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22. Thanksgiving for deliverance

Eph. 2:1-10. From death to life

John 3:14-21. The Son of Man must be lifted up

Year C

Josh. 5:9-12. Passover in the promised land

Psalm 32. The joy of being forgiven

2 Cor. 5:16-21. Everything has become new

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. The prodigal son and his brother

RC John 8:1-11. The woman taken in adultery.

The Gospel appointed for Year A is the ancient reading for this Sunday addressed to the catechumens. The washing in the pool of Siloam is a type of baptism; the progress of the man born blind and of catechumens is from darkness to enlightenment; the theme is spiritual sight and faith. In the course of the long Gospel, conflict between Jesus and his opponents makes its appearance. The baptized are thus taught that they, too, can expect trouble in their new life as Christians. Their spiritual warfare will continue to be waged.

The Episcopal prayer over the people for this Sunday is, “Look down in mercy, Lord, on your people who kneel before you; and grant that those whom you have nourished by your Word and Sacraments may bring forth fruit worthy of repentance; through Christ our Lord.”

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

With the Fifth Sunday in Lent the Church enters “deep Lent.” In the previous calendar it was called Passion Sunday, the beginning of a two-week period called Passion Time (in Roman Catholic books) or Passiontide (in certain Anglican circles), which focused on the passion and death of Christ. It was marked often with a distinct liturgical color, usually red; crosses and statues were veiled (a “fast of the eyes”).63 In English use, the white veils of the Lenten array were replaced with Passiontide red.64 The emphasis was on preparing to mourn the suffering and death of Christ. Entering a veiled church was like entering a house of mourning with the curtains drawn.65 Traces of this distinctive character remain in the Propers of the Roman rite. The Proper Preface for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in Years B and C tells of the Power of the Cross. “The suffering and death of your Son brought life to the whole world, moving our hearts to praise your glory. The power of the cross reveals your judgment on this world and the kingship of Christ crucified.” The present liturgy in these final two weeks of Lent still turns toward the cross, but it is not to mourn but (p.166) to ponder more intensely the Paschal mystery, Jesus’s passage through death to life beyond.

The antiphon of the Introit for what was previously called Passion Sunday, Judica me, is from Psalm 42:1, 2a.

Antiphon. Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;

from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me! For you are the God in

whom I take refuge.

Psalm 43:3. O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;

let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Gloria Patri.

The antiphon is repeated: Vindicate me...I take refuge.

As Lent draws toward its close and Holy Week approaches, it is impossible not to hear in these psalm verses the voice of Christ. And we know how the anguished prayer will be answered. The Father will indeed bring him to the holy hill called Golgotha and then beyond that in the Ascension to his dwelling.

The collect in all three rites before the twentieth-century revisions was from the Gregorian sacramentary.

We beseech thee, almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people [literally “family”], that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord....

Although it was reminiscent of the Collect then appointed for the Second Sunday in Lent and was anticipatory of the Collect for Good Friday, modern books have replaced it with a prayer thought more suitable to the season. The objections to the prayer were not new. Paul Strodach early in the twentieth century knew what they were and provides a response.

When one comes to the Day’s Collect perhaps one feels like saying it is inadequate; but one should hesitate, read it again very quietly and slowly, ponder it; and then that first opinion will not remain, but become the opposite. It is simple, yet transcendingly beautiful and so complete in its single little sentence crowded full of soul petition. Perhaps the fathers who prepared these Offices—and we owe these unknown lovers of God a debt which only our appreciation and worshipful use can repay—felt, as many unhappily do not, how empty mere words are to (p.167) express the truly deep things of the soul. It is not the quantity of words, or the length to which it may be drawn out, that makes a prayer. These men were pray-ers; they prove it when they leave such devotional treasures as these Collects. A Collect such as this Day’s can be born only of the deepest contemplation; it was not “written”; it prayed itself into the very spirit of the Day with the soul as the goal of the great High Priest’s Ministry and sacrificial Death.66

Modern worshippers are not so patient nor are they equipped with a facility in the Latin language, and so have difficulty appreciating such understated and compressed prayers. (This is not necessarily sufficient reason to abandon them. It is rather to be taken as encouragement to careful explanation and exploration of the unfamiliar.) The Roman sacramentary appoints a collect from the Mozarabic rite.

Come to our aid, Lord God, that we may walk courageously in that love with which, out of love for the world, your Son handed himself over to death; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The 1979 American Prayer Book appoints the Collect previously used in the Roman Missal, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Lutheran rite on the Fourth Sunday after Easter. It comes from the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries in which it was assigned to the third Sunday after the Octave of Easter.

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord....

The prayer only subtly looks through the cross toward the joys of Easter.

The Revised Common Lectionary appoints these readings.

Year A

Ezek. 37:1-14. The valley of dry bones

Psalm 130. Out of the depths

Rom. 8:6-11. Life in the Spirit

John 11:1-45. The raising of Lazarus from the dead (p.168)

Year B

Jer. 31:31-34. A new covenant

Psalm 51:1-12. Prayer for cleansing and pardon

or 119:9-16. Teach me your statutes

Heb. 5:5-10. The Son made perfect through suffering

John 12:20-33. The hour has come for the Son of Man to beglorified

Year C

Isa. 43:16-21. I am about to do a new thing

Psalm 126. A harvest of joy

Phil. 3:4b-14. Breaking with the past

John 12:1-8. Six days before the Passover Jesus is anointed.

The Gospel for Year A is the ancient reading for this Sunday directed to the catechumens. It teaches the power of prayer, new life through Christ, and a promise of resurrection in him. In the Eastern churches “Lazarus Saturday,” the day before Holy Week begins, exactly one week before Holy Saturday, is kept as a foreshadowing of the resurrection.

The prayer over the people for the Fifth Lenten Sunday is “Look with compassion, O Lord, on this your people; that, rightly observing this holy season, they may learn to know you more fully, and to serve you with a more perfect will; through Christ our Lord.” The prayer has similarities to the prayer over the people for Thursday in Passion Week in the 1570 Roman Missal. To distinguish it from Holy Week, the fifth week in Lent, before the calendar reforms of the later twentieth century, was called Passion Week (despite the assertion of W. K. Lowther Clarke that “Passion Week is an incorrect phrase”67).

Lenten Weekday Collects

The Roman sacramentary assigns a collect for each weekday of Lent. Finding or composing thirty-three collects inevitably means a certain repetitiveness and predictability, but it does provide a place for the inclusion of some classic prayers not otherwise contained in the revised missal. Thursday after Ash Wednesday has as the Collect the great all-purpose prayer, appropriate not only for Lent but for any number of occasions.

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and (p.169) finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.68

The prayer is Gregorian, and in that sacramentary it is appointed for the Saturday in the fourth week in Lent. In the setting of Lent, it places all our self-discipline under God’s direction so that all we do will be for his glory, even the gift of everlasting life.

For Saturday after Ash Wednesday the Roman sacramentary appoints the Gregorian collect that in previous books of the Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran rites had been used on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany.

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our frailty, and in all our dangers and necessities, stretch forth the right hand of your majesty to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord....

In the earlier context there was an obvious connection with the Gospel, Matt. 8:1-13, the account of Jesus stretching forth his hand to heal a leper. Now it may be understood to anticipate the Gospel for the next day (Lent 1) asking God’s protection in our temptations.

A Gregorian collect that was used in the Roman Missal continues in use on the Monday after the First Sunday in Lent.

Turn our hearts back to you, O God of our salvation; grant us the grace of true conversion, and, that we may fully benefit from the Lenten fast, shape our minds with your heavenly teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The biblical understanding of repentance, turning around from darkness to light, recognizes that conversion is ultimately God’s work. As Luther teaches in the Small Catechism, explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith....”69

For Thursday after the First Sunday in Lent the Roman rite assigns a Leonine collect previously used on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost in the Roman Missal, the Ninth Sunday after Trinity in the Prayer Book, and the Eighth Sunday after Trinity in the Lutheran rite. The Book of Common Prayer now assigns this Collect to Proper 14.


Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always such things that are right; that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord....

Luther Reed observes that the collect “exhibits a fine balance of phraseology which it is almost impossible to preserve in translation.”70 Strodach’s comment reveals that good prayers take on new meaning in new contexts. “The hindrances are many, great and constant; they also are attractive, seductive. The false spirits would lead away; and, while seemingly attractive and harmless, will only prove themselves to be hard masters of a slavery that leads to destruction! The believer dare not pause or look back, or permit himself to be drawn away from that end for which he is striving, where such a wonderful promise awaits....”71 He is relating the collect to what was then the Epistle, Romans 8:12-17, but the same remarks are also appropriate to those making the Lenten journey and who have recently heard the account of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

For Tuesday of the second full week in Lent, the Roman sacramentary assigns the Gelasian collect used previously in the Roman Missal on the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the Book of Common Prayer on the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, and in the Lutheran books on the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

Watch over your Church, O Lord, with your unfailing mercy, and, because human frailty without you will surely fall, protect us by your help from every harm, and lead us to all things that work for our good; through Jesus Christ our Lord... .

The collect is unusual in that the very first word in Latin voices the petition, before the usual invocation.72 The Episcopal Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2003) appoints this collect to the Thursday after the Third Sunday in Lent.

On the Monday following the Third Sunday in Lent the Roman sacramentary assigns the Gelasian collect used previously in the Roman Missal on the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the Book of Common Prayer on the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, and in Lutheran books on the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord....


The collect, notably similar to the one above, is in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer assigned to Proper 13. The English translation cannot preserve the triple play on the Latin words mundet (cleanse), muniat (defend), munere (goodness).73

On Friday of the fifth full week in Lent the Roman sacramentary appoints the Gregorian collect used formerly in the Roman Missal for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, in the Book of Common Prayer on the twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, and in Lutheran books on the twenty-third Sunday after Trinity in which the Church pours out its ardent plea: loose us from the slavery of service to this world and the captivity of pleasing ourselves and set us free.74

Absolve, we beseech thee, O Lord, your people from their offenses; that from the bonds of our sins, which by reason of our frailty we have brought upon ourselves, we may be delivered by your bountiful goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who....

The same collect was also used in the Lutheran rite on the Last Sunday after Trinity of each year.

In addition to the reassignment of some of the classic collects, the Roman rite has introduced some notable newly appointed prayers. A Gelasian collect is used on the Saturday after the Second Sunday in Lent in the Roman sacramentary and on Monday following the Fourth Sunday in Lent in the Episcopal Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2003).

O God, in your holy sacraments you have given us, while still on earth, a foretaste of the good things of heaven: Guide us, we beseech you, in this present life, and lead us to that everlasting light in which you yourself dwell; through Jesus Christ our Lord....

We pray that, encouraged by the sacraments, we may be led from the darkness of this world to the land of light and life. The biblical reference is 1 Tim. 6:16.

A collect from the ninth-century Bergamo sacramentary is appointed in the present Roman sacramentary for Thursday in the third full week in Lent.

We humbly implore your majesty, O Lord, that as the Paschal festival draws nearer, we may prepare ourselves with ever greater devotion to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of our Lord; who lives and reigns....


Near the middle of Lent we are reminded of the approach of the goal of our journey, Easter, and the necessity of increased attention to our preparation for its worthy celebration.

A prayer composed of a collect from the Ambrosian rite together with a passage from a sermon of Leo the Great is appointed in the Roman sacramentary for Monday in the fifth full week in Lent.

O God, by whose amazing grace we are enriched with every blessing: Grant us so to pass from the old life of sin to the new life in Christ, that we may be made ready for the glory of your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord....

The prayer reminds us of the purpose of Lenten discipline: the passage from the old life to the new.

The English translation of these three prayers is by Dean Dirk van Dissel.

Lazarus Saturday

The last Saturday before Holy Week in the calendar of the Eastern churches is observed as Lazarus Saturday. One week before the central liturgy of Christianity, the Great Vigil of the Resurrection, the calling back of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45) is remembered in anticipation of the greater and more permanent victory of Christ over the forces of death. It is an ancient association. The pilgrim Egeria (ca. 381-384) describes a procession from Jerusalem to Bethany on the Saturday before Palm Sunday to the church erected over the tomb of Lazarus of Bethany. (In the current Western lectionary the story of Lazarus is heard on the Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year A.) Lazarus, recalled from the dead, resumed his life in this world, but he had to die again and return to the grave. Jesus, in a greater triumph, did not come back from the dead but rather, having entered the tomb, went through it and out the other side into new and unending life. He was raised never to die again (Rom. 6:9). Many Eastern Fathers see in the description of Lazarus emerging from the tomb still in his grave clothes an indication that he will need them again. Jesus, on the other hand, they note, left his grave clothes in the tomb. The raising of Lazarus, especially when proclaimed on this last Saturday before Holy Week and exactly one week before the Easter Vigil, prefigures not only the resurrection of Christ but also the new life of each of the baptized and the general resurrection of all the dead. With the assurance of the declaration that Jesus gives life to the dead we are prepared to enter the Great and Holy Week.


(1.) Lutheran Book of Worship Ministers Edition (1978), p. 129. The address has been softened and not improved in the Leaders Desk Edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), p. 617.

(2.) The first of the Ninety-five Theses. Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 25.

(3.) Adrian Nocent, The Liturgical Year, vol. 2, Lent, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1977) p. 19.

(4.) See Nocent, pp. 31, 19–20, 23, 25, 27, 42–43.

(5.) Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries; translation from William Bright’s Ancient Collects, as revised in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (p. 30).

(6.) Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, p. 51; Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 1040.

(7.) John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statues, Homily III, 11–12.

(8.) For further comment on the Address see Philip H. Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship: Lutheran Liturgy in Its Ecumenical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), pp. 224–226.

(9.) Nocent, pp. 28, 33, 36.

(10.) Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, p. 212; Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 1005.

(11.) Harald Buchinger, “On the Origin and Development of the Liturgical Year: Tendencies, Results, and Desiderata of Heortological Research,” Studia Liturgica 40:1–2 (2010), 24–28.

(12.) See Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011), pp. 89–119.

(13.) Nocent, pp. 35, 39.

(14.) Common Service Book, pp. 216–228; Service Book and Hymnal text edition (1967), pp. 463–477 and in the separate Lectionary Epistles and Gospels Together with Lessons from the Old Testament from the Service Book and Hymnal (1959), pp. 127–135.

(15.) Council of Laodicaea (ca. 363), Canon 52.

(16.) Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origin of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011) p. 90.

(17.) Bradshaw and Johnson, pp. 107–108.

(18.) Egeria 27:1.

(19.) One week of six days beginning with Clean Monday (the Monday before the Western Ash Wednesday) followed by four weeks of seven days each and concluding with six days through Friday of the final week, for a total of forty days.

(20.) William Bright, Ancient Collects (Oxford and London: James Parker, 1875), p. 208; quoted in Luther D. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), p. 524.

(21.) Book of Common Prayer (1928), p. 31; Common Service Book, p. 46; The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), p. 45; Service Book and Hymnal, p. 148.

(22.) Reed, p. 447, quoting William Bright, who assumed that Pope Gelasius was the author of the sacramentary that bears his name.

(23.) The Church of the Advent, Boston.

(24.) Paul Zeller Strodach, The Church Year (Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1924), p. 89.

(25.) So in the Common Service Book, p. 293: “Green. From and with Vespers of the Saturday before Septuagesima to Vespers of the day before Ash Wednesday”; Service Book and Hymnal, p. 277: “...to, but not including, Vespers of the day before Ash Wednesday.” Other Lutheran books did not specify color use.

(26.) “Lent,” New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship ed. Paul Bradshaw. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.

(27.) For Carnival in Rome in the eighteenth century, see Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-1788), trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (New York: Pantheon, 1962), 445–469.

(28.) See Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 602–608.

(29.) See C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (Princeton: University Press, 1959), chap. 1, “Introduction: The Saturnalian Pattern,” especially the section, “Through Release to Clarification.”

(30.) See Philip H. Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship: Lutheran Liturgy in Its Ecumenical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), pp. 222–223.

(31.) Philip H. Pfatteicher, “Lent,” New Proclamation Year B 2002-2003 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), pp. 142–143.

(32.) See Percy Dearmer, The Parson’s Handbook 12th ed. (London: Oxford UP, 1932), pp. 450–451.

(33.) Nocent, p. 64.

(34.) Translated in The Anglican Missal (1995), p. A58.

(35.) Father Richard Herbel, St. Augustine’s House Newsletter, Lent A.D. 2011.

(36.) 1928 Book of Common Prayer, pp. 60–63.

(37.) Luther D. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960) p. 492.

(38.) The translation is by William Bright in Ancient Collects (1875), p. 31.

(39.) Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury, 1981), p. 400.

(40.) Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford UP, 1950), p. 218.

(41.) “Only-begotten, Word of God eternal,” The Hymnal 1982, no. 361, stanza 4.

(42.) Hymnal 1982 nos. 310, 311; Service Book and Hymnal no. 277.

(43.) Hymnal of the Moravian Church (1969) no. 432; (Lutheran) Church Book no. 447; Common Service Book no. 260; Service Book and Hymnal no. 532; Lutheran Book of Worship no. 341; Evangelical Lutheran Worship no. 624; Lutheran Service Book no. 718.

(44.) © 1939, 1966 by E. C. Schirmer Music Company, a division of ECS Publishing, www.ecspub.com Used by permission. Lutheran Book of Worship no. 557; alt. in Evangelical Lutheran Worship no. 881; and The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) no. 554.

(45.) See Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land 5th ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 37–38.

(46.) John Mason Neale described the hymn as “the most pathetic of medieval poems” (“pathetic” in the sense of arousing sympathetic sadness and compassion) as “Jerusalem the golden” is “the most lovely” and Dies irae “the most sublime.”

(47.) The Lutheran Church Book (1868) followed by the Common Service Book (1918) and The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), which preserved the Latin names for the Sundays in Lent, curiously changed the tense of the verb from future to perfect, rendering it invocavit, “he called” instead of invocabit. The error was corrected in the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal. The error antedates the Reformation and is found in some north European Missals, probably because of a copyist’s confusion of “b” with “v,” which often look quite similar in script. Edward T. Horn III. The Christian Year (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957), p. 107.

(48.) Hatchett, p. 174.

(49.) Hatchett, p. 174.

(50.) Translation by William Bright, Ancient Collects, pp. 31–32; Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 930.

(51.) Joseph Sittler, “As Lent Begins,” The Lutheran, February 27, 1963, p. 5.

(52.) The Hymnal 1982, no. 143. Translated by Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947). From The English Hymnal. Reproduced by Permission of CopyCat Music Licensing, LLC, obo Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

(53.) Similar confidence in divine aid appears in the English Book of Common Prayer in the suffrages in Morning Prayer : “Give peace in our time, O Lord. Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.”

(54.) The Hymnal 1982, no. 146. Translated by James Quinn, SJ, from Praise the Lord (Geoffrey Chapman, 1972). Used by permission from Bloomsbury.

(55.) The Hymnal 1982, no. 142.

(56.) Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, p. 61; Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 1030.

(57.) Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, p. 93; Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 932.

(58.) Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year (New York: Pueblo, 1981), p. 100.

(59.) International Commission on English in the Liturgy draft; Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 913.

(60.) Hatchett, p. 174.

(61.) Reed, p. 493.

(62.) See Bright, Ancient Collects, p. 31 no. 2.

(63.) The veiling may have been suggested by the conclusion of the Gospel appointed for this Sunday in the medieval lectionary that was in use until the final third of the twentieth century, John 8:46–59, “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”

(64.) See Percy Dearmer, The Parson’s Handbook 12th ed. Rev. (London: Oxford UP, 1932), pp. 113–114.

(65.) The description derives from C. D. Smith, The Royal Banners. A Tract for Passiontide (London: The Church Union, Church Literature Association, n.d.), p. 9.

(66.) Strodach, p. 128.

(67.) Liturgy and Worship. A Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion ed. W. K. Lowther Clarke and Charles Harris (London: SPCK, 1964 [1932]), p. 207. “Passion Week” appears in Roman Catholic and Anglican missals and was also current in Lutheran use.

(68.) Book of Common Prayer, p. 832; Church Book, p. 107 no. 59; Common Service Book, p. 139 no. 19; Service Book and Hymnal, p. 233 no. 113; Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 49 no. 220; Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 86; Lutheran Service Book, p. 310 no. 188.

(69.) The Book of Concord ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), p. 355.

(70.) Reed, p. 528, quotes the Latin: ut qui sine te esse non possumus secundum te vivere valeamus.

(71.) Strodach, p. 204.

(72.) Reed, p. 535.

(73.) Reed, p. 536.

(74.) Strodach, p. 254.