Ask most people, including most Protestants or non-observant Roman Catholics, about the purpose of Lent, and you're likely to hear things like:
1) A time to give things up, or take things on, to make ourselves better, to get ready for Holy Week and Easter, or to show our devotion to God
2) A time to simplify our lives and improve our spiritual disciplines, particularly of silence, fasting, and solitude.
If you were to ask what images people would associate with Lent, you might hear ashes, deserts, quiet places, and the things they've given up doing and are trying hard not to do at least during this season.
Overall, in many of our churches, Lent becomes a season for people to sample what a more spiritual life might be. Perhaps we might call it something like a "spirituality smorgasbord."
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If you were to ask early Christians and some more contemporary Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike) who are seeking to reclaim what the early Christians were doing with Lent, you'd likely get a very different set of answers.
The primary purpose of Lent, they would say, is to prepare persons for baptism or re-affirmation of the faith and renewed faithful participation in the life of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit.
One image would likely relate to the image above and to the left-- an ancient Christian baptistery.
And another, just as important in their minds, might relate to the right: the yellow footprints all recruits are ordered to walk upon as soon as they exit the bus to begin their time as Marines-in-training.
That's because that's what these 40 days were most like in early Christianity-- spiritual boot camp. It was a time of increasing intensification of preparation for people to receive the gift of baptism and be able to respond to the extraordinary demand of the vows of baptism with humble integrity, trusting God's grace to complete in them what the Spirit would bring to birth. It was, and in more places is again, spiritual boot camp for a lifetime of discipleship to Jesus, ministry in his name and
sanctification toward perfection in love in this life.
These Christians would not disagree with anything the first group of Christians said in terms of things people might do during Lent. There is real nourishment to be found in the smorgasbord.
But these Christians would also say, "The reason we're doing these things isn't primarily to improve ourselves, or even to try to draw closer to God per se. We're doing these things so we can support these soon-to-be reborn by water and the Spirit so they can learn and live as disciples of and missionaries with Jesus among us and with us the best ways we possibly can."
For those preparing for baptism or re-affirmation, Lent is about the preparation itself-- doing what it takes to get ready to live out the vows of baptism for the rest of their lives. How well am I renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world, repenting of my sin, accepting the freedom and grace God gives to resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form they present themselves, embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior, and serving as his representative in the world with the whole church? What practices do I need to make habits so I can cooperate with the Spirit's work and see the signs and join the unfolding of God's kingdom in the world around me? What must I let go, and how will I live without those things in my life? How can I keep growing in faithfulness to this covenant, relying on my learning and relationships in the church and the promptings of the Holy Spirit to help me do what I cannot do alone?
For the rest of the baptized in the church, Lent is about doing everything possible to be as supportive of that preparation as we can be by word and living example. We fast and pray to show and support others who are still learning how to undertake these disciplines of a Spirit-led life. We let go of some things to support others doing the same, and then we don't take them back unless they may be helpful for our and their continuing growth in holiness, or faithfulness in ministry and witness. We take on ministries of compassion and justice and then build on the platform laid in these 40 days to show what it means, as the Second General Rule puts it, "to do good... to all [people],.. to their bodies... and... to their souls."
Baptismal Boot Camp.
Those preparing for baptism or reaffirmation are the recruits.
The faithful baptized-- the vast majority of us laity-- are the drill sergeants, the cooks, the maintenance crews, and the other soldiers and staff who make this time of intensive formation as productive as it can be for those preparing to join or rejoin our ranks.
And our Triune God, by whom, in whom and with whom these persons will be reborn and made new creatures, buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him to walk in newness of life, is the commanding officer.
Just as graduation from boot camp marks only the beginning of one's actual military career, baptism is indeed initiation into the body and way of Christ. There remains much more to learn. Eastertide is there to help with some of that, to provide some more solid doctrinal groundings and help these persons begin to discern and act upon their gifts and callings as minister's in Christ's name. And then a whole lifetime of Advents, Christmastides, Lents, Eastertides, and Ordinary Times in between to learn and help others learn to walk this way, as citizens of God's kingdom drawn near in every aspect of our personal and common lives.
And it starts here, with Lent: Baptismal Boot Camp.
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It's a pretty big distance between the enlivening vision of Lent as spirituality smorgabord as we often see it in our churches today and the baptismal boot camp early Christians were and some contemporary Christians are now trying to make of this season.
What steps might your congregation take this year, in worship and in other formational actions, to move from the present to this ancient/future vision and approach?
What steps might your congregation start taking now to help reclaim the deep discipling and sacramental mission of this season, and not just some of its vestigial practices?
How might you, this year, start to move Lent from "spirituality smorgasbord" to "baptismal boot camp"?