Commentary: Lent

The order for Lent has a number of pre-loved sources, mostly the have been edited and repurposed. There are also a number of original elements -though of course ‘original’ can often owe a huge debt of gratitude to something else. What follows gives some backstory and framing which may interest and help some users.

It’s worth recalling that the forms of these daily offices tries to do two things. One is to offer a prayerful context for the reading of scripture which reflects the season -in this case, Lent. The second is to give a form of prayer using the structure of the Lord’s prayer and, here, to do so with a seasonal, Lenten, twist. So these comments will simply go through the order and offer background and thoughts about the compiling and praying of the words.

The first sentence borrows from the Ash Wednesday service.

Remembering we are dust and to dust we shall return, we turn from our waywardness to cultivate Christwardness.

Those on Ash Wednesday who have ash placed on their foreheads are told “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return…” it seems fitting during Lent to recall this defining liturgical moment from the start of the season, reminding us of the frailty and (without God) the futility of human be-ing. The second sentence echoes but paraphrases the next part of the Ashing phrase which says, “Turn from you sin and follow Christ” or similar words (different traditions have it slightly differently). One of the things I have tried to do in editing and writing prayers for BOCP is to move away on occasion from normal church liturgical language to help us to see/hear afresh what it is we are saying. So here: ‘waywardness’ deputises for ‘sin’ and at the same time gestures towards the imagery of the wilderness which features in early Lenten lectionary readings. To be wayward is to have lost the path and suggests having wandered off potentially into a wilderness. The phrase also implicitly invites us to consider our life as being lived in a wilderness -with its temptations and the potential to see it as empty of meaning and haunted by forces uncaring of human life.

And then having a word which ends in ‘-ness’, and wishing to further reflect on ‘sin’ by offering an implied opposite, the word ‘Christwardness’ is born. It has behind it John 16:8-9

And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me 

Which seems to imply that a defining characteristic of Sin is not believing in Christ, that is not orienting our lives towards Jesus and the teaching Christ brings.

What is it that we seek?
We seek God’s way in the wilderness.
Let’s seek with all our deciding
Amen. God be our wisdom.
Let’s seek with all our affections
Amen. God be our centre
Let’s seek with all our attitudes
Amen. God be our vision.
Let’s seek with all our resources
Amen. God be our mainstay.

This traces back to one of the opening prayers in the Northumbria Community’s daily office of morning prayer. There the first question is whom do we seek and the following responses are questions with an implied answer developed into a recognition of our weakness in the face of our call to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. I found the use of the heart-soul-mind-strength theme to be useful but felt that the questions would be better as a mutual exhortation to seek. It then seemed that the song ‘Be thou my vision’ suggested a way of counterpointing those aspects of seeking with characteristics of God might make a satisfying prayer.

Then, after some time of using the form amended in that way, it started to seem that what I knew about the way that ancients would use body parts to talk about aspects of our inner lives was not always the way we understand them. So I substituted with words we might otherwise use; deciding, affections etc.

Then there follows an exhortation to prepare us directly to listen and attend to the reading or readings.

Tested and tempted in the desert, scripture revealed and steered Jesus’ resistance and direction. May we learn and inwardly digest the Wisdom of God we hear.
Let us attend!

The word underlying ‘tempted’ in the stories of Jesus being led into the wilderness, also could be translated ‘tested’ and so using both words seemed a fair thing to do in this context. The basic idea is that in Lent we often start by looking at Jesus’ wilderness experience and temptations and in the stories we have, at the heart of resisting the false paths offered is scripture which clearly helped him both to understand the positive direction he was to take and to grasp the dangers in the wrong paths that opened up to him. This knowing practical right from wrong in terms of paths open to us is part of what scripture usually means by ‘wisdom’. The phrase ‘learn and inwardly digest’ comes from a collect in the Book of Common Prayer which relates to how we approach scripture and seems in this case to characterise well the way that Jesus had evidently internalised chapters 6 and 8 of Deuteronomy.

“Let us attend” comes from Orthodox liturgies and is a way to call people to attention to hear readings from Scripture. The whole phrase is “Wisdom, let us attend!” but since the previous part of the phrase already had ‘wisdom’ in it, it seemed that this part of the announcement had, in effect, already been made.

After the readings and reflection on them we round off the scripture-focused section of the prayer form with this:

Jesus call us to faith in Him.
….pause for reflection
Lord, we believe,
help us in our unbelief.

One of the structuring principles for many of these offices is to have a time after reflecting on the scriptures when we renew our commitment to living out what we learn and sense God leading us into by them. Many of these are taken from the Gospels and borrow from passages where people are responding to Jesus. In this case it is a declaration of faith but charmingly honest to which Jesus then responds positively. Those words to Jesus in Mark 9 have been repurposed to enable us to use them in Lent, the tentativeness of faith they exhibit seems the right sort of ‘note’ to sound for Lent with its attention to our weakness and frailty.

In these offices, a canticle is used to make a transition from a focus on scripture to prayer using the Lord’s prayer as its structuring principle. The praise of God in the canticles acts as a primer for the first phase of the Lord’s prayer pattern. This version of the Song of Christ’s Glory from Philippians 2 has been tweaked . The choice of this canticle for Lent is to do with the motif of ‘humbling himself’.

We will give God thanks:
You are our help and our God.
You are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast faithful love. You seek us out in the darkness of our sin, and exchange beauty of reconciliation for the ashes of our rebellion.
…other appreciations of God may be added.
Our God in heaven, father and mother to us;
Hallowed be your name.

As in a lot of these offices, lines from Psalms are used quite a lot. The phrase ‘my help and my God’ comes from Psalms 42 and 43 and has here been made plural because these offices are conceived as corporate -shadowing the Lord’s Prayer which is unremittingly corporate: ‘Our Father … give us … forgive us … as we forgive … lead us … ‘ The aim, of course is to induct us into giving praise and thanks. The phrase following the opening response echoes God’s revelation of God’s name in Exodus 34:6 which is repeated sometimes with slight variations several times (eg. Psalm 86:15 or Psalm 103:8) through the Hebrew scriptures. Because it is a revealed naming of God, it seems right to use it at a point in the prayers where we hallow God’s name.

The following sentence about ‘seeking us out’ is adapted from a prayer from the Church of England’s liturgical resources relating to Lent.

The ‘father and mother to us’ is a phrase borrowed from a liturgy of the Iona community. it helps us to recall that the word ‘Father’ addressed to God is a metaphor -a hallowed one to be sure but still simply a slice of characterising God who overflows our human words’ containment. ‘Mother’ also captures some character of God and echoes and reminds us of some motherly imagery from the Bible which applies to God. In times where there is sensitivity to issues of gender it is good to draw on a wider range of verbal characterisations which remind us that both main human genders are made in the image of God and can therefore point to God.

The ‘kingdom come’ phase starts with

We have been led into deserts of dried-up meaning and conflicting desires. We petition for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that they may be filled
God fulfil your purpose for us:
Send from heaven and save us.

The petitions in this phase, pick up the themes of wilderness and testing. That first one invites us to pick out the parts of our experience that are frustrating and conflicted and to recognise them as part of the human condition in this passing age. The second sentence is drawn from the beatitudes and turns the phrase into a petition.

The following petitions have the temptations in the wilderness at the back of them and use some words and phrasing that is not simply easy but aims to pick up some contemporary secular usage and fold them into our prayer. Sometimes our prayers become too Christianese and it is important, I think, to keep going to the marketplace and refresh our speaking with God -it may even help others to join in more easily sometimes. The petition about bread and its supply in the wider world is placed last in that series of requests so as to make the bridge to the ‘daily bread’ section more smooth.

The ‘open your hand’ couplet is taken from Psalm 145:16 and seems a fitting way to re-express something of the petition for daily bread. The section is, of course, introduced by lines alluding to Matthew 6:33.

The next section, of course, is about forgiving.

We recognise ourselves in the fractured and frail failures of the stories of God’s people. and we pause to reorient ourselves towards love of God and neighbour.

There is alliteration which draws attention to our plight in terms that echo Jesus’ passion and link them to a solidarity with the wider family of God’s people whose failings are portrayed with brutal honesty in the stories of scripture.

The ‘reorient’ harks back to the waywardness at the beginning of this order of prayer and introduces the reflection on our wrong-doing and wrong-attitudes by using the words of the famous Pauline lines on love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The idea is that as we read and hear the different characterisations of love, we will recall various things from our own lives that need sorting -and the first step is to acknowledge them.

The ‘refrain’ lines between the meditations on love are from Hosea 13:3. They serve as a counterpoint to the lovely and demanding characterisation of love.

You may note that unlike most other forgiveness sections in the other orders in this collection, there is no explicit part relating to ‘as we forgive’. This is because, in fact, many of the attitudes and postures described in Paul’s words imply forgiving very strongly. That is worth thinking about in itself: that love enacted involves forgiving, in effect.

The words encouraging us to know God’s mercy are drawn from a phrase in Ray Simpson’s Celtic Worship Through the Year.

Make us instruments of your peace:
and let your glory be over all the earth.

That phrase, of course, draws on the famous first line of a prayer attributed to St Francis of Assissi.

…pause to reflect on the coming day…

As with all these pauses at this point, the idea is to consider what is known of the likely events of the day (I sometimes look through my diary and ‘hold’ it before God) and consider what challenges it may hold to our discipleship. It is also worth recalling that there are likely to be things that happen that are unpredictable and we may want to pray into responding well, wisely and winsomely.

The final responses are based, at base, on the temptation in the wilderness.

Tempted to breaden stones:
May your Word give us life.
Tested by intimations of invincibility:
Make us wise in your ways.
Trialled by the seductions of power:
Keep us true to you.

The first line includes a neologism, but I think it actually expresses succinctly the idea of changing something into bread.  The second pair of lines references the temptation at the temple to throw himself down for angels to save and the third pair the vision and offer of ruling the nations.

The temptation around jumping down from the temple peak might, among other things, be things like leaving preparation to the last minute and trusting God to make up for our deficiencies.. So it can act as a warning not to take God for granted in such a way as not to make proper provision to play our part -being wise about what that is- for example.


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