Lent and Easter Observances — Holy or Habit?

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Special seasonal spiritual emphases for Lent and Easter are good things for the church, but with every good item comes opportunities for misuse. To be perfectly honest, I never thought of the harm they can bring until I was long in ministry. As we began our Lenten/Easter emphasis this year the first lines in my sermon series were as follows:

“The Easter season has come around to us once more, and so it is time to turn our minds and hopefully also our hearts to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. What I am about to say may surprise you a bit, but there is something in me that tells me to just skip it altogether this year. I say that because when we turn to certain topics in certain seasons of the year from mere habit, they become trite and superficial. As Dr. Eric Alexander wrote many years ago, 'Superficial views of the work of Christ at Calvary produce superficial Christian lives!' What we preach on in these weeks is anything but trite for it involved the greatest miscarriage of justice the world has ever seen, even though it was in the eternal plan of God.”

Our Lenten and Easter season emphases are holy habits, but if they are merely habits as we or our people go through the motions, they are not worship, but rather body without mind, lips without heart. So what are we to do to keep these good and godly worship functions alive and vibrant? I firmly believe it begins in the heart and life of the pastor and worship leader. The serious and sensitive worshiper will pick up very quickly whether we who lead worship are actually in it or just leading it. They know whether this is just the time of year when we do this stuff, or this is a time to go back to visit the shadowed grave yard of our dearest Savior, weep, ponder anew, and wait expectantly for Sunday sunrise glory! 

How will the worshippers know what is in our hearts? Think about it: real experiences, first-time ones we stumble through, sometimes rather badly for we hardly know what to say. Rote experiences we do often we take on without thought or hesitation for we have done them many times before. In this crucifixion/ resurrection season let us indeed be well prepared, but let us also try to prepare as though it were our first time returning to that scene at Calvary and that empty tomb.

“Go to dark Gethsemane, all who feel the Tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer's conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour:
Turn not from His griefs away—teach us, Lord, how we should pray.

“Follow to the judgment hall, view the Lord of life arraigned.
Oh, the wormwood and the gall! Oh, the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss—help us, Lord, to bear our cross.

“Calvary's mournful mountain climb; there adoring at His feet,
Mark the miracle of time, God's own sacrifice complete:
'It is finished!' hear Him cry—save us, Lord, when death draws nigh.”
                                                                                                                                  James Montgomery

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If we truly believe that Jesus lives in us by his Holy Spirit, we don't need such annual, ritual reminders of Calvary's cross derived from Roman Catholicism. If we need such a reminder, no amount of organized Lenten activities will make a difference.