Corporate Lenten Disciplines

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Theologian David Fagerberg writes of the importance for all followers of Jesus to embrace “liturgical asceticism.” What does he mean? Liturgical asceticism is the discipline of full participation in the life and mission of Christ, participation that is accomplished primarily through worship, including regular Eucharist, daily prayer, contemplation on the greatness of the mysteries of God, etc. This participation includes the practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, but emphasizes the communal nature of worship, gathering together as the Body of Christ, partaking of the broken bread (the Body of Christ) so we can become ourselves the bread of Christ broken in mission for the life of the world. In other words, we become what we eat.

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 the catechumens, traditionally called and enrolled as the “elect” after Ash Wednesday), and a season of detachment, spiritual purification, and enlightenment for all Christians. Notice that prayer, fasting, almsgiving, even catechetical formation, are external practices, perhaps preferably communal external practices. As we do, so shall we be. External practices develop internal dispositions, detached from unhealthy, unworthy, or even unnecessary attachments.

Prayer: 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: 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: 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 for the sake of others.

Dr. Fagerberg goes on to say that liturgical asceticism produces prayerful theologians, the vocation of all Christians born in the waters of the font and perfected in the desert of life. He writes, “The beginning of theology is not the card catalog in the library, but instead it is doing battle with the passions in the heart; and the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint.” The worship of God conduces to union with God, theosis, divinization, Christlikeness, so that we, the Church, can be the manifestation of Christ to the world, telling the world its true story and inviting the world into that same union with the Creator.

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

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. 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.

Daily Lenten Devotional

If you would like a media-rich scripture-based devotional delivered daily to your inbox throughout lent, visit and sign up for the electronic edition of IWS professor Dr. Dan Sharp‘s annual Lenten devotional booklet. Those who subscribed previously will be automatically added to the Lent 2020 list. You can browse last year’s devotional to get a sense of what it’s like, but the content will be all new for this year.

About the author

Dr. James R. Hart served as President of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies from 2007-2024.