Lenten Study: Week 5
Lent carries us with the Hebrews in search of the promised land, with Jesus into the wilderness and, ultimately, to the cross at Calvary.
It is a somber season in the church year, so somber, in fact, that by the end, Christians will have gone 40 days without hearing “Alleluia” during worship. There is no other time during the church year when language in worship is so circumscribed as this. Many congregations even practice the tradition of “burying the Alleluia” at the start of the season, a ritual with ties going back to the Middle Ages by some estimates.
Burying the "Alleluia" is one way we remember the sacrifice of Christ, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). In the ritual burying of the "Alleluia," we mourn the death of Jesus, and we stand in solidarity with the fellowship of believers of ages past, mourning the sin that kept us separated from God until by grace that gap was bridged. Lent is a season of this kind of tragic memory, and the entombed "Alleluia" is a visible reminder of that.
Fasting is another way we remember this sacrifice, this loss. Some early Christians believed that fasting was a form of lament, both for sin and for the death of Jesus. Christians ought, they believed, to fast on certain days or in certain seasons as a way of remembering and lamenting Christ’s death on the cross.
The disciplines of Lent that call us into lament also push us into the world, with an openness to hear the lament of those for whom lament is a daily reality, for whom the “Alleluia” remains buried well past Easter. Spiritual practices attune us to hear the lament of our neighbors facing poverty, hunger, disease, marginalization and death.
Lent prepares us for this. But the spiritual disciplines of the season don’t stop there. Lent is not a season of lingering but of journeying in trust. The Hebrews exited Egypt in trust that a better life awaited them. Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness in trust that God would sustain him, and approached the cross in trust that not even crucifixion could derail the work of God in the world.
We, too, in Lent journey in trust, clinging by faith to the promise that outside the rhythm of our liturgical season, the “Alleluia” has been released forever by the resurrection of Christ, so that no shout of joy ought to be stifled by hunger, silenced by injustice or hidden by pain. We know that God’s intention is for our “Alleluia” to resound – forcefully, loudly, boldly – now, in this world, in this time.
As we reflect on the buried “Alleluia” this Lent, we also remember that grace continues to abound in our world through God’s continued work through our church and our neighbors.
In Burure in the Gokwe region of Zimbabwe, outbreaks of malaria compounded by deep poverty threaten the lives and well-being of both children and adults. In 2016, over 280,000 new cases of malaria were identified in Zimbabwe, and malaria remains the third leading cause of death, with young children being particularly vulnerable.
These numbers, though, belie the great progress that has been made against malaria in Zimbabwe, including through the schools, health clinic and other programs supported by ELCA World Hunger in Burure. Recognizing that the likelihood of good health increases as a household’s income increases, women in Burure have formed village savings and loan groups that enable them to pool resources to invest in their own work. The pooled resources help support vegetable farms, gardens and beehives for honey. The profits provide the means to purchase food and other necessities and invest in other activities. By drawing together their own resources, women in the groups are able to give and receive and look forward to a brighter future for themselves and their households.
The women in Burure exemplify the sort of journeying in trust shaped by the Lenten disciplines of sacrificial giving and works of love. For Christians, the practices of lament in Lent are accompanied by practices that turn us outward, toward what God is doing through and among our neighbors. That is where sacrificial giving and works of love join with the disciplines of repentance and fasting. Even for early Christians, there was a sense in which fasting was more than quiet lament. In fact, for many, fasting was at its most significant when joined with acts of charity and justice. Early Christians gave up their own food in fasting so they might sacrificially give the unconsumed food to their neighbors in need, trusting that God’s abundance was sufficient to sustain all of God’s creation.
In Burure, by giving of their own resources to one another, trusting in abundance and each other, and working in love for one another and the community, the women are ensuring that the “Alleluia” buried by malaria and poverty will be uncovered.
It may take place in a garden rather than a church, or next to a beehive rather than an altar, but this is the work of Lent – confronting head-on the reality of death and loss, and through giving of self and works of love, participating in the ongoing story God is weaving in human history, a story of life from death.
Even as we reflect on sin, death and our dependence on God in Lent – even as we ritually bury the “Alleluia” in our sanctuaries or sacrificially fast during the 40 days – we know that God’s work in the world continues. The work of ending hunger goes on with faith in a promised future where all will be fed. We share in God’s work with hope, joy and faith. And we do this work because we know by faith that when it comes to the seemingly insurmountable problems of hunger, poverty and human need, God will have the final word. And that word will be “Alleluia!”
There are four disciplines, or spiritual practices, that guide our time during Lent. Use the questions and prompts below to reflect on the Lenten disciplines: repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving, and works of love.
Where are places in your community where challenges like hunger, poverty or illness make it difficult for cries of joy to resound?
PRAYER AND FASTING
This week, remember in prayer the women of Burure. Pray for blessings for their harvests and for the harvests of all those who ensure that our communities are fed.
Early Christians believed that when people fasted, the food they gave up should be given to others in need. How might it change your idea of a fast to think of it as a gift to others, rather than as a sacrifice for yourself?
WORKS OF LOVE
Where do you see God at work in your community, changing the story for neighbors in need? How can, or do, you participate in God’s work in the world around you?