Lent 2018: What can the Ancient Church Teach Us?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:6-9 NRSV)

Salvador Dali, “Christ of St John of the Cross”

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. God calls us to observe a holy Lent through assessment, penitence, discipline and renewal, using the classical church practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Historically, the Church has set aside Lent as a time of intense catechesis (instruction and formation in preparation for baptism) for new believers, and a season of detachment, spiritual purification, and enlightenment for all Christians. Notice that prayer, fasting, almsgiving, even catechetical formation, are external practices. As we do, so shall we be. External practices develop internal dispositions, detached from unhealthy, unworthy, or even unnecessary attachments.

Prayer is emphasized during Lent. When asked how to improve one’s prayer time, Thomas Merton is said to have responded, “Take the time.” Simply take the time to pray regularly, and you will become more prayerful.

Fasting is emphasized during Lent. Bodily pleasures, while not wrong in and of themselves, can become domineering. We fast from bodily pleasures so that the deeper spiritual hungers will arise. Live a fasted life while remembering and helping others less fortunate than ourselves.

Almsgiving is emphasized during Lent. In giving alms we acknowledge that the things we own are ultimately gifts from God. The right of private property carries a responsibility for the common good. We participate in that reality by generously and joyfully giving alms, again, for the sake of others.

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

I shared this with you for the past several years. St. Ephrem the Syrian is a 4th century saint and doctor of the Church who is known especially for his hymn writing. (I have an icon of him in my office.) Here is one of St. Ephrem’s prayers, said to be the Lenten prayer “par excellence” and prayed in the Eastern Church every weekday of Lent.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Keep from me the spirit of indifference
And discouragement,
Lust of power, and idle chatter.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of wholeness of being,
Humble-mindedness, patience, and love.

O Lord and King,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge my brother and sister,
For You are blessed,
Now and ever and forever. Amen.

I want to commend this prayer of St. Ephrem to you for your Lenten devotion. Pray it daily, perhaps even twice each day. Let the words sink into your soul as you allow God to work in you, putting off worldly addictions and taking on divine virtues.

And, strive for great detachment from worldly attachments with great love toward God and others. St. John of the Cross wrote, “In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on earthly possessions and human success, but rather on how much we have loved.”

May our observance of a holy Lent help us all to grow in the fullness of the life of God.

Supporting IWS

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Checks can be made out to IWS, noted “IWS Fund” and/or “Scholarship Fund” and sent to IWS, 4001 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32207. Donations may also be made online. Gifts may be designated in memory or honor of a loved one, and/or may be anonymous. All gifts are tax-deductible.

About the author

Dr. James R. Hart has served as President of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies since 2007. Dr. Hart was a member of the first IWS doctoral class, the Alpha class, and served as Dean of Students during his matriculation. After graduating from IWS, Dr. Webber appointed him as the Dean of Administration, and then Provost in 2006. In June of 2007, he was inaugurated as the second president of IWS. Dr. Hart holds a B.M. in Sacred Music from Oral Roberts University, an M.M. in Trumpet Performance from the University of Tulsa, and a D.W.S. from the Institute for Worship Studies. He was critical to the formation of IWS in Florida and has held administrative responsibilities since its inception in 1999. He is a professional trumpeter, choral director, and worship leader, and a published composer/arranger, songwriter, and author. He has been involved in worship leadership in various contexts around the globe for over 40 years and has taught in the areas of worship, theology, and music in various conferences, colleges, and seminaries. Dr. Hart and his wife, Carol, have three daughters and three grandchildren.