I don’t expect this but…. I do think the least Christians can do is come to church for special services. I know its tough with all the basketball and hockey and curling and bridge and pinocle and the CBS lineup on TV and getting away to the South for some sun and going to a hotel so the kids can swim and Navaho basket weaving and pottery and tacos in Oakwood and …………………………..
Hermann Sasse was living in Australia when he wrote these words. His letters are being translated by Matt Harrison.
In order to understand this season of the year of the Church, we must look to the ancient Church. Already the first Christians, except those who were born as Jews and remained Jews, no longer celebrated the Sabbath, the seventh day. To them the old commandment, as it belonged to the ceremonial law, was fulfilled by Jesus when He rested in His grave on Holy Saturday. They were looking forward to the great eternal sabbath, to the sabbath rest for the people of God in heaven (Heb. 4:9f.). Instead, they celebrated the fist day of the week, the day of the resurrection, when the risen Lord came back from the grave and was seen by His disciples. This day they called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), a term which appears in the Old Testament (Amos 5:18) for the Last Day when the Lord will come to judge “the quick and the dead.” The Sunday after Easter, when Jesus came again to the house where the disciples were assembled behind “closed doors” (John 20:26), was the first ordinary Sunday in the Church. Henceforth this would be the day when the Church was to assemble to hear the Gospel and to celebrate the Sacrament. They would commemorate His earthly days up to the day of Easter, ask Him in prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20), proclaim thus his death “until he comes” (I Cor. 11:26), and sing the Sanctus to Him Who was really present in His Word and Sacrament.
The second festival that came into existence very early, perhaps already at the time of the New Testament, was Easter (I Cor. 5:7), celebrated once a year, and thus the beginning of the year of the Church. Of this great feast, whose name was Pascha, we shall speak on another occasion. It was the climax of the Christian year. On Holy Saturday at sunset the congregation assembled for a service that lasted throughout the night. During the first part the new members of the Church were baptized and joined for the first time at midnight in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. A long time of preparation preceded baptism, later three years of the catechumenate, the instruction in the faith which ended shortly before Easter with the “tradition” of the Creed which was to be confessed at baptism. (In the case of the baptism of infants the parents, and, later, the sponsors confessed the faith on behalf of the child and answered the questions.) The liturgy of baptism included the renunciation of the devil and his realm: “Dost thou renounce the devil and all his words and all his pomp?” This question was put to each of us in our baptism and our parents or sponsors answered in our stead: “I do.” The devil and the kingdom of the demons were a great reality to the ancient Christians. It is a reality, this kingdom of the darkness, as we all should know form the history of the world, of which were are witnesses. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the reelers of the darkness of this word.” So Paul describes the fight of the Christian in the world (Eph. 6:12), and in Col. 1:11 he tells us what God has done for us: “Who has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.” This deliverance from the powers of darkness, from the devil and all his words and all his pomp, brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ, becomes ours in baptism and is received by faith. With great seriousness the young Christians had to prepare themselves for the great day when they would renounce the devil and his realm and enter into the Kingdom of Christ. Thus the last thing before Easter became a time of preparation. The three great weapons with which they had to fight the devil are the weapons which our Lord Himself has used when He vanquished the devil in His temptation: fasting and the Word of God (Matt. 4:1ff.), and which He mentioned in other places: prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). A time of fasting and praying preceded Easter, and the whole congregation joined with their catechumens. This is the origin of Lent as a time of fasting and spiritual preparation for Easter. As Jesus had been fasting in the desert forty days, so this fasting should last forty days. Hence the name “Quadragesima.” Since in the ancient Church Sunday was never kept as a fasting day the Sundays of Lent consist of six weeks each with six fasting days plus the four weekdays preceding the first Sunday in Lent, Invocavit: Satuday, Friday, Thursday and Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent. This explains also the choise of the lessons. Most of them have nothing to do with the Passion of our Lord. The emphasis on the Passion begins with the fifth Sunday in Lent, Judica, which in some Churches is also called Passion Sunday. Many of the Gospels deal rather with events connected with the idea of the fight against the devil, as, e.g., the Gospel of Invocavit (Temptation of Jesus), or of Reminiscere and Oculi (Jesus casting out demons). Lent has always been a special time of preaching. Special Lenten services with sermons on the Passion of Christ are a common practice in the Lutheran Church.
In the course of time, when Easter ceased to be the day of baptism, the original meaning of Lent was more or less lost. Now it was the time of fasting for the entire Church, not only for the young Christians who were joined by the congregations. And yet this season has remained the great season of the preparation of the Christian soul to receive again, in penitence, in a revival of faith, in the Sacrament of the Altar the full blessings of the redemption Christ has gain for us on Good Friday and Easter. This is so in all Churches which have kept the Church Year. It is interesting to see how even in Churches of Cavlinistic background, which had once abolished the Church Year as an institution of the Papal Church, the idea of Lent as a time of preparation for Easter and of a renewal of our Christian life is being revived. This season of Lent existed before there was a Papal Church. Also, fasting, as some people seem to think, is not an invention of the Pope. As our Lord Himself practiced it, so He assumed that after His death His disciples would keep regular fasting. Fasting and bodily preparation is, as we have learned in Luther’s Catechism, a fine outward discipline. Fasting is wrong only if we practice it as a good work by which we may earn merits before God. It is time that we Lutherans rediscover the proper meaning of fasting as a bodily discipline to further our inner life. It has never been entirely lost.