Growing up in a Christian Reformed Church, I can’t say that I was very aware of the season of Lent. Then one year my mom bought purple fabric for the communion table and cross in the sanctuary. That's when I learned purple was the symbolic color for Lent because it was the color of the robes the Roman soldiers used to humiliate Jesus. Purple was the color of royalty, and ironically the Romans mocked Jesus as the “King of the Jews.” During Lent, purple symbolizes Jesus' pain and suffering, representing the mourning and penitence of the season.
Quite honestly, my ability to experience Lent has grown proportionately to my involvement in planning the worship experience. I think this is because the observance of Lent in the CRC can happen all around you; it doesn’t require anything of you until you choose to actively participate in it and allow it to prepare your heart to remember Christ's sacrifice on Good Friday and celebrate His resurrection on Easter morning. There is a really good reason for this which stems directly from the reformed DNA in the Christian Reformed Church.
Lent in the history of the Reformed Church
The practice of Lent arose from a need in the early Church. John Witvliet summarizes this need well: “Lent was developed in what we now call a ‘missional context.’ It was a pastoral innovation for a time much like our own, where vast numbers of people do not grow up in the church. Lent was the church's way of saying ‘yes’ to the free offer of salvation and ‘no’ to cheap grace—baptism without discipleship.”
However, through the course of church history, the human compulsion to try to ensure our own outcomes crept into the observance of Lent. Just like pharisaical law in Jesus' day, the practice of Lent turned toward legalism as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches began mandating particular practices. Naturally this became a slippery slope, confusing the purpose of Lent with the idea that one's works made it possible to earn favor with God.
It was this kind of mindset that reformers like John Calvin were trying to correct in the church. Consequently, Calvin, and others like him, said "no" to the practices of Lent. For them, since God did not command the church to observe Lent, they preferred instead to prepare for Easter using sermon series designed to focus the believer on Jesus' suffering and death.
Lent is more about our hearts than what we do
Historically, the Christian Reformed Church has shared John Calvin's perspective about misguided practices of Lent. Today, the CRC places less emphasis on the things we do during Lent, because it can lead to legalism. Instead, we focus on the symbolic elements of Lent—the liturgy, visuals, and music designed to tune our hearts and minds to hear the message Lent communicates. These elements emphasize the preaching of God's Word, which is the overarching priority in CRC churches all year long.
When I was in high school and college, I began to take an active role in the planning of worship in my church. I took notice of the intricacies in the liturgy. It might involve visual, nonverbal cues like the seasonal color purple in banners, vestments, or table coverings. It might incorporate depictions of the cross, nails, and the crown of thorns in the worship space to evoke a sense of humility and reflection. In some CRC churches, a more formal, spoken liturgy will reflect the introspective, penitent mood of the season. For one small example of this, some churches choose to refrain from using the celebratory exclamation Alleluia during Lent. They do this to contrast reflection of Lent on our need for a Savior with the Good Friday and Easter celebrations of having been saved by grace.
Lent today in the Christian Reformed Church
However, in the last few decades the CRC has seen a renewed interest in some of the practices of Lent. While we continue to recognize that Lent is a human construct, it is understood that the personal and communal decisions of whether or not to observe Lent should stem from how it can help believers prepare for Easter and mature in his or her faith.
In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner writes, "Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians." I think the same applies to our Lenten observance - it's entirely voluntary; what we do during Lent does not save us. Rather what we do gives us the space to mature in our faith as we reflect on the magnitude of God's gift of salvation. That is what Lent in the CRC is about: to create the space for the individual, and the gathered body of Christ, to set distractions aside and remember the suffering and sacrifice of our Messiah.
Be sure to also check out the Today daily devotional series, Focus on the Cross, to help you focus on the depth, beauty, and mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in a time of self-denial, repentance, and prayer.