Of all the seasons in the church year, Lent may be my favorite.
With the 40 days of penitence and fasting to prepare for the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning, come Wednesday night church services.
I love church at night.
Thatâ€™s why I like Advent, too. Four Wednesday night services in December help us prepare for the birth of Bethlehemâ€™s baby.
Some Christian churches donâ€™t observe Lent, something I canâ€™t imagine. But many do hold Wednesday night and Sunday night â€“ as well as Sunday morning â€“ services year around.
My husband was raised in such a denomination down South. He has many fond memories of those days. Three hours every week were spent in worship.
Weâ€™ve talked about it many times and did so again this week when the topic of Lent came up.
â€œI went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night with my grandmother,â€ Jim said. â€œWe just knew if the door was open, we were supposed to be there. But I donâ€™t remember anything about Lent. As a child I had never heard of Lent.â€
Until he became a Lutheran 40 some years ago. Now, going to Wednesday night Lenten services takes him back to the Wednesday nights of his youth.
â€œIâ€™m from the old school,â€ Jim said. â€œIf the door is open, you go. Itâ€™s something you want to do. Itâ€™s a special time of year and itâ€™s a special service.â€
He does, however, think Lutherans could improve on their music just a bit. Heâ€™d think heâ€™d died and gone to heaven if we ever sang, â€œStanding on the Promises,â€ â€œAre You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,â€ â€œPower in the Blood,â€ or â€œBringing in the Sheaves.â€
Not long ago he picked up his old hymnal and I heard him reliving his childhood from another room. Yes, he was singing! I must admit, I love those songs, too.
Jim remembers that his old church was just as packed on Wednesday nights as it was on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Thatâ€™s something we donâ€™t see at Lenten services.
â€œSometimes I think if there was a law against going to church youâ€™ve have more people trying to go,â€ Jim said. â€œBecause itâ€™s so easy to go and because you have the choice, a lot of people choose not to go. Thatâ€™s too bad. In some countries they have to meet secretly. Here, we have all the freedom and because we have the freedom we elect not to go.â€
As I was growing up my family never thought about skipping church either, whether it was a Sunday morning or an evening Lenten service.
My first Lenten memories came from our rural home church, Bethlehem Lutheran, near Upham, N.D. I liked going there after dark to be in the presence of God.
Thatâ€™s where I learned the beautiful Vespers service from the old Lutheran Hymnal that came out in 1941. I loved a part of the liturgy called The Nunc Dimittis. Words for the canticle (song) come right of the Bible.
Lent, in the Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. Lent is a time of sacrifice for Jesus. Its traditional purpose is to prepare the believer, through prayer, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial, for the commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
The wonder and memories of Lent and its services stand out from every place Jim and I have lived since our marriage: Peace Lutheran, Great Falls, Mont.; Trinity Lutheran, Cheyenne, Wyo.; Bethlehem Lutheran, Rapid City, S.D.; St. Markâ€™s Lutheran Church, Minot, N.D., and Immanuel Lutheran, here in Grand Forks.
But, for me, thereâ€™s one church that stands out more than any other. Its St. Paulâ€™s in Minot where I went to Lenten services during my college days.
Each week, as the Vespers service ended, the congregation sang, â€œAbide with Me.â€ Everyone knew the last verse by heart so there was no need for light.
In total darkness with only a beam of light from the balcony that was fixed on the cross on the altar below, we sang: â€œHold thou Thy cross before my closing eyes. Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies. Heavenâ€™s morning breaks and earthâ€™s vain shadows flee. In life in death, O Lord, abide with me.â€
Decades have passed since that time, but I havenâ€™t forgotten the power of being there, or the drama. The darkness was like being engulfed in a tomb, with that ray of light offering the hope that Easter Sunday morning brings.
That light and that hope is why we go through the fasting and penitence and the darkness of Lent.