What Lent isn't (and what it is)

A website called "Church Marketing Sucks" posted a brief piece today about how Dutch Catholics have "re-branded" Lent as the Christian version of Ramadan, an Islamic holiday season.

Ramadan is, essentially, a season that commemorates the so-called revelation of the Koran (the Islamic holy book), or more precisely, the beginning of that revelation. The name is taken from the Arabic name for the month in which it occurs. During Ramadan, Muslims observe a daytime fast, eating only before the sun rises in the morning or after it sets in the evening. Muslims are also encouraged to read through the entire Koran, and make sacrificial gifts to the poor, among other practices.

Lent is a 40-day season of the liturgical calendar of Christianity, and is often observed by fasting, self-denial, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). Thus, externally Lent and Ramadan appear similar. However, the similarities end there.

Lent is a time of fasting and self-denial, not in celebration of a revelation, but as a season of contemplation and preparation for the coming Lord at Easter. (Both Lent and Advent are seasons of preparation in this way.) Mirroring the 40 days Jesus spent in fasting and self-denial prior to launching his public ministry (see Luke 4:1-13), Christians likewise fast and reflect on the significance of Christ's work.

In many ways, Lent is not an uplifting or exuberant season, and many Christians seem to resent it because of that. However, life itself is not a constant time of exuberance, and Christ's life and ministry are full of times where his experiences are far from uplifting, in terms of the "mood" of the moment. One of the things that Lent offers is a time to focus on the spiritual dimension of these seasons of life: when things are less than wonderful in every way.

Not to downplay the significance of Ramadan to the Muslim at all-- but it is not very much like Lent in its meaning, purpose, and function in the Christian's life. There is value in using "familiar language" instead of churchy insider-speak like we often use; but calling Lent the "Christian Ramadan" is not really considerate of either.

Liturgy and colors

As I mentioned in a previous post, I wear a stole over my Geneva gown for worship. There are lots of stoles, though-- and most of them have a particular meaning. What about the stoles I wear?

My stoles follow the traditional colors that correspond to the
liturgical seasons. Clothes are inevitably colored; the historic church took advantage of this fact to bring symbolism and reminders into worship in new ways, though we often take them for granted. In liturgical observance, there are four basic and traditional colors:
  • Purple signifies wealth, power, and royalty-- primarily because the dyes required to make purple were very expensive until more recently. Thus, purple is a kingly color, and signifies a celebration of the coming of the King. The seasons of Advent and Lent are times of preparation for the King, so purple is worn during these times.
  • White is used throughout scripture to signify purity, and especially purity in Christ. It is also a color associated with angels, as well as resurrection. White is the color that is appropriate during the seasons of Christmastide and Easter.
  • Red is also a color that is found throughout Scripture, signifying blood, sin, and death. It has also been a color associated with martyrdom and fire. Thus, red is the color for the last week of Lent, also known as Holy Week, and for Pentecost Sunday (when fire descended on believers as a sign of the Holy Spirit).
  • Green is the "default" color, and is worn during the days following particular days (that is, ones that have a definitive day where the celebration takes place; the Sundays in these seasons have no particular names, just numbers) such as Pentecost and Epiphany. These days are sometimes called "ordinary days." Green is an earthy color, and as the color of vegetation has always been regarded as a color signifying life and health.

There are other colors that are used less frequently, and these also have significance (though they are not required as replacements of the traditional four colors): gold and ivory are accepted alternatives to white, rose (a color associated with joy) is sometimes inserted for the third Sunday in Advent and, occasionally, for the fourth Sunday in Lent; natural (un-dyed) or "hemp" colors are sometimes used on Maundy Thursday; blue is a color of hope, and is used by some during Advent; and black is used, though very infrequently, on the most solemn days.

Likewise, there are special days when colors change: white is used for weddings, for any secular holidays that the church might observe, and also for funerals (think resurrection)-- though some will use black for funerals instead. Black is also occasionally used on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and All Souls' Day. Red is used for ordinations and installations, as these are times of particular recognition of the Holy Spirit's presence.

As we move through the seasons, the colors we use are helpful reminders of the many seasons and emotions of life. I hope you will find them a useful addition to our worship in these ways.

Why a robe?

Now that I'm ordained, I'll start to wear a robe for worship. Some will inevitably wonder why... so I'd like to pre-emptively answer that publicly.

Why wear a robe? There are several reasons:
1. It fits our worship style. We have a fairly traditional worship style at Hickory Withe. It isn't stuff or overly formal, but it is traditional and a little bit "high church." A ministerial robe fits into this worship style well.
2. It serves as a sort of "uniform." Many professions have their uniforms-- doctors wear lab coats or scrubs, lawyers wear suits, Uniforms distinguish people in their particular roles. What is the uniform for pastoral ministry? Some would say it is a robe.
3. It fits a long-standing tradition. Not only have pastors, priests, and bishops worn robes for centuries, but many of the pastors of Hickory Withe have, too. I get to participate in a great heritage when I wear mine.
4. It eliminates concerns about wardrobe. With a robe, it removes the distractions and concerns of other wardrobe options. I'm not distracted by the fact that I have limited options, or whether my shirt is untucked, etc. My congregation isn't distracted by whether my tie is too loud or whether I'm wearing the same suit two weeks in a row.
5. I like it. I was given the generous gift of an ecclesiastical robe as a seminary graduation present, and I like it.

What sort of robe do I wear? Some would argue that the proper robe for a Presbyterian pastor to wear is a white one, also known as an alb. (As
Ken Collins said: "people in robes are dressed like Calvin. People in albs are dressed like Jesus.") Personally, I never saw a white robe on a pastor growing up in the south, and most Presbyterian Pastors I know who wear robes wear black ones.

On the other hand, I appreciate the (probably apocryphal) story of how John Calvin re-introduced the robe to worship in Geneva: his pulpit was drafty, and he was cold, so he grabbed his academic gown before leaving his study and wore it! What IS known is that Calvin established the practice of wearing robes for protestants, and wore an academic robe because he wasn't ordained.

In light of that (and because I love its simplicity), I asked for a Geneva Gown when picking out my robe. It is all black, with a plain, pleated front (no velvet bands as some black robes have). And I wear a stole with it, with appropriate colors, to mark the
liturgical season.

Lent Haiku

Fat Tuesday brings in
the beginning of a time
for self-denial

Haiku #7 (Christmastide Haiku)

Son of God and son
of man, living for us and
our unrighteousness.

Merry Christmastide

Merry Christmastide!

What is Christmastide, perhaps you are wondering? In most protestant churches, we tend to ignore the "seasons" of the church that have historically been set apart as the flow of the calendar for Christians, but in some Christian churches (protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic alike) a liturgical calendar guides how the different seasons of the Christian year are distinguished. Christmastide is the brief season from Christmas Day to January 5.

Also called Yuletide or simply the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmastide marks the season during which the church has historically reflected on the significance of the incarnation. If Advent is a season of anticipation, then Christmastide is a season of fulfillment and a beginning awareness of what that fulfillment means.

Christmastide includes consideration of the various early events of Christ's life, including visitation from the shepherds, the visitation and gifts of the Magi, and the circumcision of Jesus. It ends on what has traditionally been called Twelfth Night, which is the eve of the day of Epiphany (which is sometimes called Three Kings' Day). Just as Advent is a season that culminates with Christmas Eve, Christmastide also culminates with the eve of the next season.

I think it is very helpful to observe the seasons, rather than simply celebrating the days and having a gap of time in between. For me, all that happens in anticipation of Advent is more than I want to contemplate all at once, so I'm thankful for a season of four weeks or so to consider it. Likewise, the significance of the incarnation is more than I want to try to think through on just one day (Christmas Day), so I appreciate having a season for reflection on that.

Haiku #6 (Advent Haiku #2)

The Incarnation
an amazing and awesome
truth for God's people

Haiku #4 (Advent Haiku)

Anticipate Christmas
God descended from heaven
to be our Savior