Observing Lent: Several Practical Suggestions

The image of the desert way is one of the classical expressions of the Lenten journey—clearly derived from the way of Jesus in the desert. Only by intentionally entering the desert way can we be kept from idolatry and perhaps from spiritual self-indulgence.
—Don E. Saliers

As this quote suggests, Lent is notorious for its emphasis on self-denial and discipline. The following is a basic list of practical suggestions for those who would like to initiate themselves into this rigorous season.

First, if available, simply attend and participate in your church’s Lenten services. These might include Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday services, but also, and especially, the six weekend services during Lent. Also included are Holy Week services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, all of which culminate Lent and bring it to its climax.

Second, consider using the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) as a guide for Bible reading—not only in your personal devotions but also in communal settings (e.g., in small groups or at the table with your family). The RCL is essentially a list of biblical readings designated for each Sunday in the three-year liturgical cycle. Each day covered in the lectionary has four readings: (1) a reading from the Old Testament, (2) a reading from the Psalms, (3) a reading from Acts and the Epistles, and (4) a reading from the Gospels. You need not buy a physical copy, as the RCL is available for free online (see, for example, https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu). For daily, rather than merely weekly, readings, one can turn to the RCL Daily Readings, which are available online as well (https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/daily.php?year=B). You can even download these lectionaries to Google Calendar, iCal, and Outlook.

Third, for the more theologically inclined, supplement your lectionary use by reading the appropriate entries in Roger E. Van Harm, ed., The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). Basically a collection of exegetical essays by leading mainline Protestant scholars, this set is aligned with the RCL and is designed for “jumpstarting” sermon preparation. It could also be used, though, as a devotional supplement to daily or weekly Scripture reading. Volume 1 is subtitled The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts; volume 2, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles; and volume 3, The Third Readings: The Gospels.

Fourth, consider using the RCL Prayers as a guide for individual and communal prayer. Like the RCL, this is a collection of prayers selected for each Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Each day consists of three different kinds of prayers: thematic prayers, intercessory prayers, and Scripture-based prayers. This, too, can be accessed at no cost online (https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=72).

Fifth, use a list of virtues and vices for directed prayer and self-examination. This can be part of your usual devotional time or part of a lengthier, more concentrated Lenten retreat. A Lenten form for self-examination, focusing entirely on vices, can be found here. However, the vice and virtue lists of the New Testament (e.g., 2 Corinthians 6:6–10; Galatians 5:19–23) can be used just as profitably.

Sixth, if you are physically able, join your Catholic brothers and sisters in both (1) fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and (2) abstaining from meat consumption on Fridays during Lent. Fasting can take various forms, some more demanding than others, but you should know that the Catholic Church’s current standards are actually fairly lax. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.”[1] It should be borne in mind that the point of fasting during Lent is not self-improvement, but rather spiritual discipline and solidarity with the poor (cf. Isaiah 58:6–7; Matthew 6:16–18).

Seventh, either at your local church or within your own home, organize and lead weekly, simple communal meals of soup, bread, and tea (or other modest foods and drinks).[2] This could be usefully accompanied by Scripture reading, prayer, hymn singing, and the giving of money (perhaps the equivalent of the cost of the alternative meal) to a designated mission or charity. Readings and prayers, in turn, could be from the RCL and RCL Prayers, as discussed already above.

Finally, since Lent is in large part about discipleship, and since discipleship is so intimately tied to Christ’s commands (Matthew 28:19–20), commit yourself not only to learning, but also to obeying, our Lord’s demands. This is perhaps best done in relationship with others, either within the context of a mentorship or within the context of a discipleship course at a local church. University Assembly, for instance, will be launching a new six-week teaching series on discipleship, beginning Wednesday, March 21st. We’d love for you to join us.

[1] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Fast & Abstinence,” accessed February 22, 2018, http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/catholic-information-on-lenten-fast-and-abstinence.cfm.

[2] Don E. Saliers, “The Spiritual Discipline of Lent,” in The Services of the Christian Year, vol. 5 of The Complete Library of Christian Worship, ed. Robert E. Webber (Nashville: Star Song, 1994), 229.

About the Author
Brandon C. Benziger is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and Denver Seminary, currently serving as Biblical Integration and Curriculum Development Manager at Sevenstar Academy, LLC.

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