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Look out, PC(USA) preachers! Lent’s coming

A Synod of the Covenant webinar explores different approaches for leading worship during Lent, which begins Feb. 14

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ahna Ziegler via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Now that they’ve turned the corner on Advent and Christmas, preachers are, ready or not, turning their attention to Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 14 and runs through Easter Sunday, March 31.

Last week, the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, executive of the Synod of the Covenant, offered up a 90-minute webinar on “Exploring the Themes of Lent,” which can be viewed here. The webinar was part of the synod’s Equipping Preachers series, which is open to preachers both inside and outside the bounds of the synod — Michigan and most of Ohio.

One of Hardwick’s mentors, the Rev. Dr. Fred Anderson, used to note that Sundays “come around with disturbing regularity,” and that’s also true of church seasons, Hardwick said. “We just finished our time of Advent, and yet Lent will be here before we know it,” he said, playing this video of Michael Eldridge singing “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” to help communicate the somber Lenten mood.

With a nod to the days getting longer as spring approaches, Lent means “lengthening,” and it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten.” When Hardwick asked webinar participants for their themes for Lent, they mentioned “austerity,” “preparation” and “an intentional focus on God.” Hardwick added themes of repentance, prayer and spiritual disciplines.

John Calvin “was not down with the church calendar,” Hardwick noted, and for many years Presbyterians did little to observe the Lenten season. It wasn’t until the 1870s that Christmas and Easter began regularly appearing in the nation’s Sunday school materials, and until Vatican II in 1962 when Lent and Advent received widespread observance, even among Presbyterians. Hardwick called the 1983 publication of the Book of Common Worship “the high mark of the liturgical renewal movement” in the then-recently reunited PC(USA).

“Growing up, I don’t remember an Ash Wednesday service,” said Hardwick, who’s 57. “We did have a Maundy Thursday service,” made memorable one year when a ruling elder almost dropped a communion tray, which young Hardwick and his sister found hilarious, much to their father’s chagrin.

The Great Vigil of Easter, which occurs this year on Saturday, March 30, is less well-known than Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. A service of light that’s held outdoors, the vigil begins in darkness before a fire and a Paschal candle are lighted. The service includes readings from both the Old and New Testaments “showing the history of salvation,” according to Hardwick, and focuses on the imagery of water and the Eucharist, “the joyous celebration of the people of God with a foretaste of the kingdom.”

“One thing I like about [the Great Vigil of Easter] is that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a Maundy Thursday and a Good Friday service because they are both serious,” Hardwick said. “An Easter vigil feels different. You’re outdoors, you’ve got a fire, and it provides a variety of worship experiences.”

Hardwick helped participants explore both non-lectionary and lectionary options for preaching throughout Lent. New publications include a pair of books from Westminster John Knox Press: Elizabeth F. Caldwell’s “Pause: Spending Lent with the Psalms” and Mary Alice Birdwhistell and Tyler D. Mayfield’s “Hard and Holy Work: A Lenten Journey Through the Book of Exodus.”

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick

To round out the webinar, Hardwick asked participants to form small groups and discuss the Year B Lenten lectionary passages found in both testaments as well as in the Epistles. Then they regrouped to name common themes they’d found, including covenant, death and new life, choosing to follow God, wilderness, and asking who God is and what God wants from us.

One participant suggested using one hymn throughout Lent, such as “Christus Paradox,” which in the Glory to God Hymnal is Sylvia G. Dunstan’s “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd,” Number 274. Hardwick said one advantage to using a hymn or other element throughout Lent is people can miss a worship service or two and still hear or spot something familiar.

Another participant has a colleague who includes discussion questions in the bulletin that worshipers, including families, can use throughout the week. Hardwick said another approach is to place a different item central to that week’s worship service in the front of the worship space, where everyone can see it.

“Every time I do this [webinar], I wish I was preaching, because I learn so much from you,” Hardwick told those on the call. “I’m grateful for you who are doing that.”

In his closing prayer, Hardwick thanked God “most of all for your Spirit, who will continue to work through these preachers as they plan for Lent. I pray that in their churches your Spirit will be alive and draw people to you because of the work that was started this morning.

“We’re grateful, O God, for all the seasons of the year. Make the time like fishes and loaves between now and Ash Wednesday, that these preachers will have the time they need to prepare and to plan. Gracious God, we’re grateful for the privilege you give us to preach, and we put our pulpits and our churches in your hands. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.”

Learn more about the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series here.

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