How Far Off Are We from the Reformers’ Vision for Lent?

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music1 Comment

I utilize a wonderful little liturgical resource in some of my worship planning for the chapel services at Knox Seminary, where I both study and teach. This book is a devotionally-oriented compendium of the collects (the short prayers, invocations which “collect” the hearts of the people at the beginning of worship) of the brilliant liturgical reformer, Thomas Cranmer. This book presents the week’s collect along with a few historical observations of how the prayer was written and then offers a page-length devotional meditation on the collect.

The Fine-Meshed Filter of the Gospel

Cranmer composed, edited, or re-purposed these historic liturgical prayers, and they have become for the Anglican tradition some of the most beautiful gems of the Prayer Book. Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch says that the collects are “one of the chief glories” of the entire tradition of Anglican worship.* Studying the origins of the collects of Cranmer would be a formative exercise for any earnest worship leader interested in how a gospel-centered thinker edited the “worship words” of his tradition to be more in line with the good news of Jesus Christ. In writing his liturgies for the English church, Cranmer took the received Roman liturgy and not only translated it into English but “gospel-ized” it. In other words, Cranmer edited out everything in the liturgy that he felt was not in line with the Gospel, and he replaced it with an enormous spotlight on the finished work of Christ’s life and death. He ferreted out every last hint of works-based righteousness, and replaced it with what Paul calls “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom 1:17, NIV).

God’s Word is a fine-meshed filter, sifting out self-righteousness in parts per trillion. The Law says that our righteousness isn’t really righteousness after all. And the Gospel says that God didn’t need our righteousness anyway. I was reminded of all this when I opened up my book to Cranmer’s collect for the first Sunday in Lent. Here it is.

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The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent

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 liveth and reigneth, &c.

History

Like the Collects of Advent III and St. Stephen’s Day, this prayer is addressed directly to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is clear: Hebrews 4:15. This is an original composition for the 1549 Prayer Book. Our Reformers eliminated the medieval Collect which stressed fasting and good works as a means to earn merit, a notion completely out of line with the New Testament.

Meditation

It is clear from this Collect that we cannot obey God in the direction of “righteousness and true holiness” until we are “subdued.” What is in mind is the self-control of a person as St. Paul commends it in II Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power and of love, and of self-control” (“of a sound mind” in the Authorized Version). … The older or medieval model in commending self-control was the model of warfare, the war between the “flesh” and the “spirit.” It was as if we were divided between a good “spirit” and a rotten “flesh.” … What Cranmer intends here, in place of the old model of warfare between “flesh” and “spirit,” is the discipline exercised upon the whole person by the Spirit of God. Through the Spirit it becomes natural rather than against nature to restrain the evil impulse for the sake of love. The “godly motion” of the Collect is the spirit of a man or woman that has been aligned into the ways of goodness by the virtue of God’s grace preceding. We are not understood here as being divided in some schizoid or dualistic manner, but rather as persons to be realigned or integrated by the rod of God exercised from love and hence for love. Remember the old saw, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”? Cast out that thought, like the sad rag it is! Exchange it for the glad rag: “Love subdues the spirit, and the ‘motions’ follow and follow and follow.”**

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A Great Lent Makes Much of Christ

So here’s what I’m thinking, friends. Liturgy and the Church Calendar are in vogue right now. And praise God for that. I happen to think the Church Calendar is much more than extra-biblical “dead traditionalism.” It is rooted in a Scriptural understanding of annual Christ-centered cycles of worship, and it is therefore a quite lively tradition. Perhaps, though, we Protestants need to think more carefully about how we re-engage and appropriate these traditions, and Lent is case in point.

Lent is a wonderful season that can go all wrong if we don’t, in the Spirit of the Reformers, maintain a stubborn commitment to the very Gospel that drove them to edit, redact, and overhaul their received liturgies. Lent is one of those places where works-righteousness likes to sneak in, where the Old Adam tries to reassert himself and gain a place at the table. For in a season of fasting and repentance (both thoroughly biblical ideas), we’re always tempted to make it about us and what we do for God. Lent can become far more about what we give up for God and far less about what Christ gave up for God the Father on our behalf. Lent is ultimately about Christ’s fasting, not ours…Christ’s earning God’s favor, not ours…Christ’s victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil, not ours.

Jesus fasted for forty days to secure the favor of the Father, and he did this, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation.” Jesus fasted in His Lenten wilderness so that our Lenten fast could be completely freed from any sense of securing the favor of God. We fast and repent from out of the favor of God, not for it. This does a marvelous relativizing work on our works, for it puts our fasting completely on the horizontal plane (between us and our fellow human beings), not the vertical (between us and God). It means that we fast for our neighbor. How is this so?

God doesn’t need one ounce of our good works. He’s got the King’s chest…a big pile of merit secured by His Son and placed in its overflowing, eternal storehouse.  The Father looks at the Son’s spoils from His war on earth and is satisfied. But though God doesn’t need our good works, our neighbor does. We fast, therefore, that we may be freed up toward the types of “Godly motions in righteousness” that bless our neighbor. When I am self-controlled, my wife and my children are blessed. When I am not self-controlled, I hurt them. Though God doesn’t benefit one ounce from my good works, my neighbor does a whole lot. So, we might say that a truly Gospel-centered Lent “horizontalizes” the works of the season. 

Furthermore, a truly Gospel-centered Lent understands with Cranmer, Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and the other reformers that it is only in focusing on Christ’s work for us (our justification) that enables our work for the sake of our neighbor (our vocation). Therefore, Lent in the light of the Gospel remains, just like all the other seasons, all about Jesus. 

Worship planners and leaders, a great Lent makes much of Christ. 

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 417.
**C. Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 34-35. 

One Comment on “How Far Off Are We from the Reformers’ Vision for Lent?”

  1. This is a fantastic description of what Lent is! Being a relatively new “convert” to the liturgy & liturgical worship, I’ve struggled each year to express what Lent means, why I observe it and why it’s not just a “Catholic thing” … yes, I grew up in the broader evangelical church 🙂 A decade of observing Lent and you’ve put easy words to my reasons. Thank you!

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