Dr. Donald Macleod, my homiletics and liturgy professor at Princeton, wrote the manual on worship for our franchise: Presbyterian Worship: Its Meaning and Method (1965). If you want to know why we do what we’ve done for so long when it comes to Sunday mornings, Dr. Macleod has the answers.
Here’s what he said about Lent:
This season begins with Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days and six Sundays prior to Easter Day. It is a period of discipline but not necessarily of a negative character. As someone has said, “Lent consists in doing something, not in merely doing without something.” The genesis of Lent appears to have been associated with a period of discipline, reflection, and abstinence in imitation of Christ’s self-denial and in preparation for the holy celebration of Easter …
Ash Wednesday gets its name from Old Testament times when “sackcloth and ashes” were symbols of repentance … Maundy Thursday takes in name from the new “man date” or “commandment. Jesus gave to His disciples to “love one another. and from the institution of the Last Supper to be done “in remembrance of me.” … The origin of the name “Good” Friday is obscure; some scholars conclude that it is a corruption of “God’s” Friday. Lent ends officially at noon on Saturday …
For Lent the liturgical color is violet, which symbolizes the mood of the season. On Good Friday in highly liturgical traditions the altar is stripped, candles are not lighted, and the cross is veiled in black.
It’s a solemn, self-effacing, self-examining season.
Or at least that’s the traditional observance.
Just as we’ve discounted the tithe to pacify weekend warriors, we’ve softened Lent over the years. Giving up chocolate or cigars or second helpings or something equally innocuous has become more fashionable than the ashes of repentance and cross of sacrifice these days. Indeed, too many folks are asking what God and His church can do for them instead of what they can do for God and others. I fear the missionary edge of the church is being blunted by navel-gazing ecclesiology. I fear the me generation has too much sympathy across the boards.
Of course, as I say all of this, a question keeps creeping into my conscience: “Is it I, Lord?”
Cyberspace recently brought this prayer to my attention:
So far today. God, I’ve done alright. Thank you for giving me the strength I needed. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, or grumpy, nasty or self-centered. But, in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot more help. Amen.
Is it I, Lord?
That’s the question for Lent 1999.
That has been the question for Lent for the last 2000 years.
Most churches are beginning Lent at the table.
It’s traditional.
It’s also timely.
Is it only a memorial of what our Lord did for us?
Isn’t it also a witness to what He’s still doing for us?
Is it only a reminder of how our ancestors killed Him?
Isn’t it also a reminder of how we’re still killing Him?
Is it I, Lord?
Michael Quoist asked in New Prayers (1988),
We believe sincerely that if people went to build the world and develop humanity without God, they are risking catastrophe. But what place do we give God in our lives? Is Jesus Christ the one who gives meaning to our existence? Can we say honestly that the Gospel throws light on our daily existence? And as for the time we offer to the Lord, isn’t it just whatever time we have left over — if we have any left over — after fulfilling all our obligations? And when we are bringing up our children, what priority do we choose for their lives? Wouldn’t it be a good idea if, from time to time, we took a critical look at our own lives in the presence of the Lord, so as to hear Him saying to us: “Will a person gain anything if he wins the whole word and loses his life?”
Is it I, Lord?
It’s still the question for Lent.
Certainly, the crucifixion of Jesus continues today.
The Judas people still betray Him when He doesn’t satisfy their selfish desires.
The Pilate people still ignore Him when Christian ethics collide with political expediency. They want the church to stay out of their business but think they have the right to stick their noses into the church’s business. This separation of church and state nonsense has more often than not been a one way street.
The soldier people still wink at His Lordship and make sport of His holiness.
Crowds still distance themselves from Him when communion with Him requires transforming self and society.
In other words, the crucifixion will not stop until all of the above and everybody else exclaim, Surely He is the Son of God!”
I’ve come to realize, knowing we’re going to live longer with Jesus than anybody else should compel us to be more conforming to than crucifying of Jesus.
I’ll never forget hearing about the preaching contest at my favorite seminary some time ago. Some mischievous university students decided to test the sincerity of seminarians. So they staged a preaching contest in the chapel: offering a cash prize for the best sermon on the parable of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30-37).
To make the test interesting, they employed an actor who dressed in disheveled and dirty clothes, pretended to be intoxicated, and sprawled himself on the steps leading into the chapel.
Guess how many seminarians on their way into the chapel to preach on the parable of the good Samaritan stopped to help the man?
Is it I, Lord?
Do I dress up like a disciple but act like my ancestors who conspired to kill Jesus?
Is it I, Lord?
Thom Hickling, my good friend and publisher of Expression, wrote to tell me about a couple of octogenarians who had been married almost 60 years before dying together in an automobile accident. They had always had good health because of the wife’s obsession with health food and exercise.
When they arrived at the pearly gates, Peter escorted them to their mansion. The husband asked how much it was going to cost. This is heaven. It’s free!” Peter replied.
Then Peter showed them the golf course behind the mansion. The husband asked how much it was going to cost to play. “This is heaven. It’s free!” Peter replied.
Then Peter showed them the cafeteria where the finest foods of the world were offered to the heavenly host. The husband asked how much it was going to cost to eat. “This is heaven. It’s free!” Peter replied.
The husband paused a moment, looked at his wife, and asked, “Where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?” Peter replied, “This is heaven. You can eat as much as you’d like and whatever you’d like and you’ll never get fat or sick. That’s the best part of heaven.”
Unexpectedly, the husband went into a fit of anger. Peter and his wife tried to calm him down. But the man would not be consoled. “What’s the matter?” they asked. And the man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault! If it weren’t for those bran muffins of yours, I could have been here long ago!”
Some folks just don’t get it.
Christianity is about what God has done for us in Jesus.
But as Lent reminds us, Christianity is also about who we are called to be and what we are called to do in thankful response to God’s grace in Jesus.
Some folks just don’t get that.
But that’s why Dr. Macleod wrote, “Lent consists in doing something!”
So what are we doing for Jesus?
What are we doing to advance the Kingdom?
Tipping or tithing?
Counting the cost or saving souls?
Expanding our missionary vision or standing pat?
Repenting or rationalizing?
Is tradition a guide or has it become a god?
Do we long for the way things never were?
When we resist spiritual and substantial growth because we’ve never done it that way before, aren’t we confessing a lack of trust in God’s gracious providence?
Do we act as if Jesus never rose from the dead?
Are we more in love with Jesus this year than last year?
Is it I, Lord?
Lent has always been about solemn, self-effacing, self-examining questions.
The questions come from our Lord’s declarative, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).
That’s the real test of discipleship.
That’s why Paul wrote, “You are all children of God through faith in Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).
And as they say, clothes make the person.

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