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Lent and the Christian Life

by Dr. Hermann Sasse Lutheran Herald (Australia), March 11, 1961

One of the greatest treasures of our church is the Church Year. It is not only independent of the civil year, but even from the natural seasons. We in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Christmas in summer and Easter in autumn, thus showing that the Christian festivals are not essentially Christianized festivals of nature, but feasts commemorating the great facts of the history of salvation, the birth not of the light, but of Him Who is the Light of the world; the resurrection not of nature, but of Him Who triumphed over death against all laws of nature. Lent is for us not what the name originally means, the time of the lengthening of days, spring (German: Lenz), but it is, or ought to be, to us who celebrate it in late summer and at beginning of autumn that which it was meant to be, the time of preparation for Easter.

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 first 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: Saturday, Friday, Thursday and Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent. This explains also the choice 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 gained 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 Calvinistic 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.

I know of men who every year during Lent give up smoking. If we would learn such discipline, also our praying would become more serious. How often must we pastors hear: “I cannot pray properly, I cannot gather my thoughts, I cannot concentrate.” Of course, as every art, also the art of prayer and meditation must be learned and practiced. There is no better and more appropriate time for it than Lent. This is also true of prayers in chant and of our family prayers. They so easily become mere routine. Also our prayer life should be determined by the Church Year. If the family in the weeks of Lent, and especially as the Lenten season approaches Holy Week, gathers around the stories of Jesus journey up to Jerusalem, of the last week of His earthly days, of His suffering and death, this can mean much for the children.

We speak so easily of the cross of Christ. We should learn from our earliest childhood to accompany our Lord to Calvary, meditating on all the details of the Gospel narratives. We should learn and sing the old Passion hymns, listen to the great Passion music of our great masters, such as Bach, study the great paintings of the crucifixion. I know a man* who in grave sickness spent the whole night from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday in a hospital without any sleep and in great pain. The doctor could not help him. But in this night he accompanied his Lord on the whole way from Gethsemane to Calvary. In his heart he prayed: “O Sacred Head now wounded” and the other Passion hymns he remembered. This was one of the most blessed nights of his life. In this way Lent can become to us a renewal of our spiritual life, a renewal of our baptismal vow in which we renounced the devil and all his works, an experience of what it means to be buried with Christ and raised into a new life.

*Note. I suspect Sasse is here referring to himself, and perhaps the incident of his complete mental and physical breakdown ca 1947, while he was serving as rector of Erlangen University, when he passed out in the Nuremberg train station and woke in a sanitarium. Matt H.

Behold the Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sin of the World

Jesus, the Lamb of God, is led to the slaughter of His cross as the Sacrifice of Atonement for the sin of the world. “Despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3), He is the righteous Servant who justifies many by His innocent suffering and death. He bears our griefs and sorrows; He is wounded for our transgressions; He is crushed for our iniquities; He suffers our chastisement; “and with his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:4–5). As the Son of God, He fulfills the Law for us in human flesh, and so fulfills the Scriptures (John 19:7, 24). In perfect faith and faithfulness, He shares all our weaknesses and temptations, “yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). As our merciful High Priest, He brings us to the Father in peace, “makes intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12) and joins our prayers to His own, so that we are heard “because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). From His cross, He gives us His Spirit (John 19:30), washes us with water from His side and covers us with His blood (John 19:34).

May you all have a blessed Holy Week and Easter!

Will God Forgive Me… Again?

We must put away a whitewashed Christianity that says that God simply forgives because He is nice, kind, loving, gentle, etc. That is not how forgiveness works.

Hear Psalm 32,1-12: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

Sometimes when our guilt sticks heavily upon us, we can wonder if God’s forgiveness really applies to us. We do that certain sin, again and again, we surprise ourselves with some out-of-character action, we find ourselves feeling less guilty for certain trespasses, etc. In the midst of such rhythms, we are to take the psalmist’s prayer to heart. For we are reminded here that we are favored by God. God has taken our sins away because God wants to!

It is hard to believe this because there seems an inherent injustice in it. “If I keep sinning and doing bad, won’t God punish me? Isn’t his job to keep order? I know he is patient, but I keep repeating the same mistakes. At some point God is going to drop the hammer on me, isn’t he?”

This sense of dreadful anticipation at God’s coming wrath is real because guilty people know that justice must eventually come. God can’t keep turning a blind eye. And he doesn’t.

We must put away a whitewashed Christianity that says that God simply forgives because He is nice, kind, loving, gentle, etc. That is not how forgiveness works. God does not simply ignore our sins, turn a blind eye to them, and perpetuate injustice. No. God has forgiven you for Christ’s sake. It was because Jesus paid your debt, took your penalty, and ransomed you from sin and death that you are forgiven. St. Paul has a special word to describe the new, objective reality of your forgiveness: justification. Notice the word “justice” embedded within it. Justification is God’s work, at Christ’s expense, to free you from sin, death, and hell. It is justice done to sin and grace given to you. And God wanted to do this for you.

When God forgives you for the sins you commit over and over, he does so because Christ has paid for their trespass and received the justice of the crime. God does not turn a blind eye to sin but instead issues justice upon his Son, for your sake.

This means you are blessed or favored because God loves you enough, because Jesus loves you enough, to hold no record of your wrongs. Now, if we are so favored by God that he would not spare his only Son, how much more so will he then help us in the midst of our troubles? You see, the cross teaches us the dedication to which God will go to show his favor for you. He wants to forgive you! So now, as you struggle through various trials, do not be downtrodden. The God who never abandoned you to your own sin will not abandon you now. And though you sin ten times ten thousand times, you can never out-sin the work of the cross. Let us live in this promise.

Written by Bruce Hillman.

The ONE Baptism

One of the issues on which the Christian Church stands divided is that of baptism. Despite baptism being a wonderful, objective gift of God, an anchor, tying our salvation to the sacrificial ministry of Christ, it still causes conflict regarding interpretation and application in the church.

Most Christians would like to see unity in the Church of God. A harmony of love and understanding. The Lord Himself wants us to be of one mind and one spirit. While seeking unity and collective love, it is tempting to make seemingly small compromises. This can, however, be achieved only by manipulating the truth, by not standing fast on the truth of God’s Word. The cost of achieving such a unity would be fruitless.

In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, one of the things mentioned in the bond of peace, that keeps the church of God together, is ONE BAPTISM (Ephesians 4,5). The Word of God is clear on what baptism is and does. To achieve the correct and true understanding of baptism, it is necessary to examine the enormous significance of Jesus’ baptism.

The following article clarifies baptism by examining:

  • Who acts in baptism?
  • How can earthly elements convey spiritual gifts?
  • How are the three baptism’s, mentioned in the New Testament, John’s baptism, Christ’s baptism and baptism after Pentecost, related to one another?