The opening of the Ash Wednesday service calls us to observe a holy Lent:
“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. In this manner, the whole Congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need that all Christians continually have to renew our repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And to make a right beginning, let us now pray for grace, that we may faithfully keep this Lent.” (2019 BCP, page 543)
This presumes that Lent is quite different in tone than the rest of the year, not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week at the Church and in the daily lives of individuals. In addition to spiritual disciplines and fasting, there are many traditional ways that the Church and family has observed Lent since the earliest days after Christ. These changes in aesthetics, liturgies, traditions, and events highlight the depravity of sin and a fallen world; and point to our need for the Lord and make the joys of Easter all the sweeter. The following is a list of various ancient and modern customs that can aid in setting Lent apart from the rest of the year.
A change in the visual look of the church is one of the easiest ways to set the tone for Lent. A simple lack of festive decor and color could do the job, but many churches dress the church especially for Lent. There are several different customs:
- Starkness. The church should look distinctly different, empty, plain, and more sober than it normally does. This can be achieved through removal of color, banners, art, and decor…and/or the adding of Lenten colors.
- No Flowers. Not normally used in Lent*. Dead branches or dried floral displays can be an alternative.
- Lenten Array. Oatmeal colored fabrics that simulate sackcloth and ashes used in coverings, banners, paraments, and vestments in Lent. They are often trimmed or embroidered in ox-blood red or black (or other earth tones) in symbols of Christ’s Passion or Lenten sayings.
- Symbols of the Passion include: Crown of thorns, hammer, whip, nails, cross, reed, and rooster.
- Example sayings: “Father Forgive”, “By His Wounds”, “It is finished”, “No greater love”, “Into your hands I commend my spirit”, and “Repent”.
- Vestments. Colored vestments and stoles should follow the Lenten pattern of violet, red, and black. Alternatively they can be of a the Lenten array. In places where tunicles and dalmatics are normally worn, it is acceptable to forgo them in Lent if congregations do not possess them in violet. A chasuble should continue to be worn at Eucharist in places it is usually worn. One might occasionally see special unbleached albs used in Lent, though it should only be done if they can be supplied to all the ministers. Going barefoot in Lenten vestments can be a powerful image, but this could be distracting in more traditional congregations.
- Cover or Remove Statues. Statuary is removed or covered in Lenten array, black, red, or violet. For reredos with statuary, a large curtain can be hung over the entire structure. Individual statues can also be draped, though a simple straight piece of fabric hanging in front could prevent a “mummy” look.
- Veil Crosses. All crosses in the church can be covered in a see-through veil, called tulle, or full fabric in the Lenten colors (changing the tulle from violet, red, and black as appropriate). They can also be covered in Lenten Array matching fabric. Crucifixes can be covered, or remain uncovered.
- Paraments. Altar frontals, pulpit and lectern falls, banners, and chalice veils can be bare, colored or they can be in a Lenten array.
- Other Artwork. Removed, covered, or closed in case of a triptych.
- Metalworks. Brass, gold, or silver (candlesticks, crosses, missal stands, etc.) can be replaced with wood or iron. A simple wooden processional cross (with ox-blood red) can replace a metal one. Metal communion vessels should continue in use.
- Violet: The color of penitence. Used from Ash Wednesday until the Saturday before Palm Sunday.
- Rose: May be worn on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday**), a customary “break” day of the rigors of Lent. More of a Roman/Western-rite custom.
- Passion-tide Red: Dark ox-blood red, usually trimmed with black, is distinct from the more festive brighter red trimmed with gold that most churches use for all red occasions (Pentecost, ordinations, confirmations, etc.) Having a specific Passion-tide*** vestment and parament set is not recommended for most churches on limited budgets or who do not have weekly services (thus would rarely wear red). Passion-tide red would be used from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday, however more traditional observation of Passion-tide is the two weeks prior to Easter (starting on the Fifth Sunday of Lent or Passion Sunday). Any red is perfectly acceptable for most churches.
- Black: Since the 20th Century shift from black to white or violet for funerals, most churches do not own the black vestments or paraments t prescribed for Good Friday and the Commemoration of the Faithfully Departed (All Souls Day). The wear of a plain black cassock (without alb, surplice, or stole) or surplice with tippet/scarf are acceptable alternatives for black vestments at Good Friday liturgies.
- Lenten Array: This generally refers to sackcloth-like fabric of an oatmeal color that are used in many churches for various purposes throughout Lent (in lieu of violet, red, and black): covering statuary and art work, altar frontals, banners, paraments, and in some rare cases for vestments. Most churches have a mixture of oatmeal array and colored items.
- Lenten Hymns and Anthems. The normal year-round hymns or praise music should be avoided.
- Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere (Psalm 51) is among the most popular anthem.
- Many contemporary artists have Lent/Holy Week specific pieces such as Andrew Peterson’s Last Words.
- Plainsong Chant. Not originally meant to be penitential in nature, but it is often interpreted as such today. Liturgy can be chanted in solemn tones. A chanted Gospel and Prayers of the People, though rarely done, could be a good Lent addition.
- No organ between Maundy Thursday and Easter Vigil (could be applied to other instruments).
- Special Concerts. These are great ways to bring in outsiders to the church. Examples:
- Requiem service compositions such as Fauré, Duruflé, Mozart, Rutter, Britten
- Passion oratorios and cantatas (Good Friday evening is the best time) such as Stainer, Maunder, Bach
- Seven Last Word meditation such as Hadyn
- Organ concerts such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (“Phantom of the Opera” theme)
- No use of bells. Or use somber tolling versus festive pealing.
- Jarring sounds. Instead of bells or “please stand”, the signal to stand can be a verger wand or mace struck on a wood floor or wooden box. Wooden blocks or clackers banged together can sound like hammer and nails, especially effective on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.
Lenten Liturgical Changes
There are several rubrically allowed changes to the prayer book liturgies that are either required or otherwise suitable in Lent:
- Propers. Seasonal acclamations, proper collects, and seasonal antiphons.
- Different Processions. Process in silence, to chant (see “Music”), or to the Great Litany.
- Omission of the Alleluias.
- The Decalogue. Sing or say in place of the Summary of the Law.
- Omission of the Gloria. Or use of a more penitential canticle such as the Benedictus, es Domine.
- Office Canticles. The Te Deum at Morning Prayer and Nunc Dimmitis at Evening Prayer should be exchanged for canticles suggested for Lent.
- The Exhortation. Used before communion at least on the First Sunday of Lent.
- The Penitential Order. A reordering of the Eucharist as suggested on page 139 of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer.
- Collect for Purity
- Decalogue or Summary of the Law
- [Exhortation] Optional
- The Confession/Absolution/Comfortable Words
- The Kyrie
- The Collect of the Day
- Traditional Language. The use of traditional language is not meant to be penitential, but could have that affect on modern congregations. Best used with the Anglican Standard Text.
- Full Anglican Standard Text. Use of the optional paragraphs in the 2019 Anglican Standard Text Eucharist.
- Confession and Absolution. Use the long-form of the pre-confession exhortation in the Eucharist “All who truly and earnestly…” and Morning and Evening Prayer “Dearly beloved…”. Also the longer absolution in the office as well “Almighty God, the Father of….”.
- Incense. Use a different smell of incense than normally used, for example incense mixed with myrrh.
- Sung Passion Gospel. At Palm Sunday the Passion Gospel can be sung, usually by a trio. There are many versions, but the Latin version translated by Samuel Weber is popular.
Special Liturgies and Events
- Shrove Tuesday Dinner. Otherwise known as Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), this is the last celebration before Lent begins the following day. A common evening consists of a pancake suppers, followed by the Burying of the Alleluia and the veiling and dressing the church for Lent. This is also a good night for collecting the palm crosses from parishioners from the previous Palm Sunday, in order to burn them for Ash Wednesday ashes.
- The Catechumente. Lent has been the preparation season for those preparing for Baptism (or Confirmation ) at Easter since the Early Church. Liturgical enrollment (see the back of To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism) and start of catechetical instruction should start well before Lent (a year or more even). On the First Sunday of Lent, those catechumens can be presented as candidates for Baptism using its such as those in the Book of Occasional Services. On the remaining Sundays of Lent they can come forward, with their sponsors, to be prayed for.
- Great Litany. The Great Litany was commonly used every Sunday year round, as well as every Wednesday and Friday. Sadly it is rarely used today. In the 2019 Book of Common Prayer (page 99) it is prescribed now to be used on the First Sundays of Advent and Lent (and Rogation Days). It was designed to be sung while in procession outside the church (or through the aisle of the church). While it was meant to be used as a separate liturgy, if used once or twice a year it can be done (such as the first Sunday of Lent) as the opening procession to a Sunday Eucharist.
- Stations of the Cross. Also called “Way of the Cross”. Often done every Friday in Lent, especially Good Friday. Can be done at other times. See the Book of Occasional Services. Individuals can also pray the stations on their own time with pre-printed handouts.
- Tenebrae. This ancient service of darkness is often held on the Wednesday of Holy Week, but it can be used at other times. See the Book of Occasional Services.
- Agape Meal. This simple and sparse liturgical meal, meant for the evening after the Maundy Thursday service, is connected to the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper. It can be held at the church, in the home, or even via tele-conference (as many did during COVID). See the Book of Occasional Services.
- Maundy Thursday Prayer Watch. This is a wonderful and powerful tradition, connected to the Maundy Thursday Watch. Read my post about it.
- Reconciliation of the Penitent. Reconciliation (confession) should be available to those who desire it all year round, but Lent is especially appropriate. If the Exhortation is said in church, it actually urges people to seek private confession if needed. This provides a perfect opportunity to teach about Reconciliation and “open the door” for people to partake if desired with set days and times. Many parishes set deliberate times (daily, weekly, or one day) for “walk in” or “by appointment” Reconciliation. Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the first three days of Holy Week (as the rest of Holy Week tends to be busy for clergy) are great days for this.
- Concerts. See “Music”.
- Mediative Prayer and Praise Nights. Instrumental, choral, or contemporary music in a reflective setting.
- Passion Plays. An important means of Christian formation, especially in illiterate Medieval communities. A Passion play acts out the scenes of Holy Week in the Church, theater, or in procession through the streets.
- Movie Viewing. A good tradition to start in the home or at the church. Timeless movies for Lent include:
- The Ten Commandments still aired on many channels on Easter Eve.
- The Passion of The Christ on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday
- The Prince of Egypt
- Other suggestions can be found here.
- Daily Office. For churches that do not do any of the offices regularly, Lent is a good time to start; perhaps with a monastic-like sung Compline by candlelight.
Observations In The Home
Most of the ideas listed above can be modified for use in the home. Festive household decor can be removed. Crosses and artwork can be draped. A sackcloth-like cloth can cover the dining room table. Families can individually fast and take on disciplines, or do it together. Perhaps the TV stays off during Lent, refrain from playing your normal praise music in the car, do the daily office or family prayer, volunteer in a ministry, orinvite people to your house for a soup supper or Agape Meal. Families can be creative and make Advent-like traditions like a Lent calendar or Lent candles. Here is a great list of ideas from a Roman Catholic parish.
*Note 1: Funerals in Lent are the exception, at which it is always acceptable to change the colors and add flowers and other decor. Weddings are traditionally not held in Lent (see Note 2 for exception). Observation of Holy Days during the week (as they should never replace a Sunday in Lent) are another exception for flowers and color, though Lenten colors can still be used.
**Note 2: The Fourth Sunday of Lent is also called “Laetare Sunday” (Rejoice); largely observed by Anglicans influenced by the Roman/Western rite. It was meant to be a break from the doldrums of Lent, with a foretaste of Easter. It is the one day in Lent that weddings are usually permitted. Like Gaudete Sunday (The Third Sunday of Advent), Rose (pink) colored vestments can be worn and flowers used. However, not many Anglican churches observe this tradition. Because daily Lenten fasts and liturgies both in the church, society, in the home have become diminished ; the Sundays in Lent are going to be the only Lenten observations for many parishioners. Thus the “break” from it on Laetare Sunday is not necessary.
***Note 3: For churches that observe Passion Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Lent and Passion-tide (the two weeks before Easter), old custom was to replace the Lenten array with passion-red (dark red) vestments and paraments for the two weeks prior to Easter (stripping them on Maundy Thursday). Otherwise, most churches keep their Lenten colors until Palm Sunday.