Leading churches

Lent Lends to Easter

How an EFCA pastor learned to embrace the Lenten season.

The first time someone told me about Lent, she had to explain that she was talking about a season of the church calendar, not the stuff that collects in your belly button.

I’m not joking.

I had grown up in non-liturgical, Baptist circles where the only church holidays we celebrated were Easter and Christmas. Upon hearing about Lent and all that it involved—ashes, repentance, fasting, etc.—I dismissed it as weird and too high church for me. Little did I know how powerful Lent would come to be in my life today.

After graduating from Beeson Divinity School, I became the pastor of Shades Valley Community Church (EFCA) in Birmingham, Alabama. As a new pastor, I had resolved not to change anything about Shades during my first year, but simply to come alongside to learn and be involved in their ministry as it existed. This meant that, for the first time in my life, I would observe Lent. 

I’m still not one-hundred percent certain how Shades came to observe the Lenten season, but I wanted to know why we do. Thus, I dove into historical and theological study to determine the purpose behind this season of ashes, repentance and fasting. Let me share, not exhaustively, but essentially the heart of why we observe Lent, why it’s so powerful and why you might consider observing the season too. As I studied the heart of the Lenten season, I came to see why it’s so powerful for a local church, of any background, to step into.

Why Lent? 

Lent is a 40-day season meant to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Easter, much like Advent prepares us for Christmas. Traditionally, such preparation has been sought through focusing on repentance and fasting, which often leads people to believe Lent is a sad, depressing season. Nothing could be further from the truth!

As our body hungers for food to satisfy our stomach, fasting points us to the One who can satisfy our deepest hunger, the hunger of our souls...

Repentance and fasting should ultimately show us the joy in Jesus. Lent should lead us to the joy of Easter. But how exactly does that work?

First, repentance reminds us that we are sinful and in need of a Savior. Without Jesus, we would be left under the just penalty of sin, which is death. We need someone to defeat our sin by dying in our place and defeat death itself by rising again. In other words, we need the crucified and resurrected Christ. Repentance reminds us that we need Easter.

Second, fasting removes something that is normally present in your life. Traditionally, Christians limit food; but the purpose is simply removing something that leaves a void so we can see that life goes on without it. Fasting reminds us that we are not truly dependent on things and helps us realize that we are ultimately dependent on Jesus.

As our body hungers for food to satisfy our stomach, fasting points us to the One who can satisfy our deepest hunger, the hunger of our souls: Christ who died and rose that He might be our satisfaction forever. In other words, we need the crucified and resurrected Christ. Fasting reminds us that we need Easter.

But what does all this look like in the context of a church community? Maybe you see how observing Lent could be a valuable practice to embrace, but perhaps, like me, you grew up in a non-liturgical setting, and you don’t understand how your church could engage this season. To help spark ideas and inspire you, here is how Shades practices the Lenten season.

Ash Wednesday

It all begins with our Ash Wednesday service, which serves as the official start of the Lenten season. In preparation for this service, we encourage our congregation to think through what they might fast from during Lent, highlighting the purpose of fasting and this season of repentance.

It is a beautiful picture of the gospel, and as a pastor, it’s a powerful moment of connection with my people.

On Ash Wednesday, before the service, we take dried out palm fronds (saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service), burn them and mix in olive oil to make the ashes, a biblical symbol of repentance. As people arrive, the lights are low and the mood is somber. The service is composed of a mixture of songs, corporate confession and a brief homily, all leading up to the imposition of the ashes.

As we sing a few songs together, our congregants come to the front where one of our pastors looks them in the eye and says the following while using the ashes to make a cross on their forehead: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

These words and the ashes remind us that the penalty of sin is death, quite literally making us feel that reality as our doom to dust is pressed into our forehead. We need to repent and turn from our sin to our Savior. And, that is why after I say, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” I give the instruction, “So repent, and believe the gospel.”

The ashes remind us of our sin and its penalty, but using them to make the sign of the cross reminds us that we have a Savior to turn to who has defeated sin and death. Do you see the powerful symbolism at play in the imposition of the ashes? We use dust, the sign of our deserved death, to make a cross, the sign of our death defeated.

It is a beautiful picture of the gospel, and as a pastor, it’s a powerful moment of connection with my people. 

Looking into their eyes, calling them by name and telling them the reality of their mortality while holding forth their only hope in the gospel brings tears to my eyes, every time.

We gather again on Good Friday but the difference in the atmosphere could not be more stark.

This night of ashes, repentance and fasting is all meant to be a night of turning our hearts toward our need for the crucified and resurrected Christ, our need for Easter. Ash Wednesday begins the journey of Lent leading us to Easter. 

The weeks between

Throughout the rest of the 40-day season, we encourage our people to be continually engaged through a few different practices. Of course, we encourage one another in our individual fasts, but corporately we engage in a daily reading plan designed around the Sunday Lenten series. Devotionals are written by the pastoral staff to supplement these readings and are emailed daily to the congregation.

Each Sunday, we are reminded of the season through the way we welcome the congregation, through the sermon series and through the use of purple (Lent’s liturgical color) in our sanctuary décor. All this builds anticipation as Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) arrives. Our people rejoice as Palm Sunday bursts onto the scene with a sense of celebration.

We place palm fronds in each chair and people wave them in worship, fold them into crosses, and before leaving, lay them at the foot of the cross that stands at the center of our sanctuary. 

We gather again on Good Friday but the difference in the atmosphere could not be more stark.

All is dark, save the cross under the spotlight for the night. We worship by candlelight, singing and reading our way through the passion narrative until the moment of Christ’s death when the lights are extinguished and we sit in heavy silence. One by one, we walk out into Holy Saturday, imagining the darkness the disciples must have felt.

We know the end

But three days later, Easter erupts! All is bright! Everything is decorated in white! The music is loud and celebratory and the air rings with cries of, “He is risen, he is risen indeed!” Easter is nothing short of a party at Shades. It is a celebration in the extreme, and it climaxes in our congregation adorning the cross with flowers—literally transforming a symbol of death into life!

Easter will have its final effect.

I cannot explain the Easter electricity in the air, but I firmly believe it is connected to the Holy Spirit using Lent to prepare our hearts, and I know our congregation agrees. Even those, like me, who first thought the Lenten season strange have come to appreciate the way it transforms their experience of Easter. It is our biggest celebration at Shades—and I think that’s the way it should be!

Lent leads us to see more deeply our identity as a resurrection community. We have new life because of the resurrection of Christ. And we have the ultimate hope that the promise of His resurrection will be brought to completion when He returns to make all things new. Easter will have its final effect. So even when our lives in this world feel like Lent, we have hope, for we have learned the lesson of where Lent is leading.

We have hope because Lent leads us to Easter.

Jonathan Haefs

Jonathan Haefs is the lead pastor of Shades Valley Community Church (EFCA) in Homewood, Alabama, where he has served since February 2012. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Beeson Divinity School. Jonathan has been married to Holly for 20 years, and they have five children: Charis, Levi, Talitha, Asher and Solomon. You can find him reading theology of Tolkien, playing with his kiddos or cheering on the Atlanta Braves.

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