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Three Books for Lent

We are well into Lent, the season in the church year which focuses our attention on Jesus’ final earthly days, especially his Passion, which Wikipedia describes this way: “In Christianity, the Passion (from Late Latin: passionem “suffering, enduring”) is the short final period in the life of Jesus covering his entrance visit to Jerusalem and leading to his crucifixion on Mount Calvary, defining the climactic event central to Christian doctrine of Salvation History.” Lent is forty days long, not counting Sundays, and begins with Ash Wednesday. Many Christians choose to start reading special Lenten devotions on that day, but if you missed Ash Wednesday, today is a good day to start Lenten devotions as well.

There are any number of excellent books, both digital and traditionally built, that are available for use as devotions for Lent. Here are two that I have used in previous years:

  1. Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Orbis 2003), is an anthology of reflections on various aspects of Lent and Christ’s Passion, written by such well known authors as Meister Ekhart, Leo Tolstoy, Christina Rossetti, Kathleen Norris, Mother Teresa, and numerous others. It is a special joy to read the meditations of many people on this deeply affecting subject. Being allowed to consider Jesus’ Passion through the eyes of those who lived in past centuries and those who are on the way with us today points to the truth of Christ’s human condition, his oneness with us in his suffering and his transcendent love. Bread and Wine can still be purchased, but there is an newer edition of this anthology-styled devotional book from Orbis titled All Shall Be Well: Readings for Lent and Easter. (2015)
  2. Lent For Everyone: Mark, Year B (Westminster John Knox Press 2012), is written by N. T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham and one of the world’s leading Bible scholars. Wright uses his own excellent translation of the book of Mark for this volume. Each day there is a brief, enlightening comment on the passage of scripture and a prayer to read. Wright adds a reflection on one of the Psalms for each Sunday in Lent, as well. By the end of Lent one has gained a fresh understanding of the Gospel of Mark and, in the style the book itself, is energized by the story of the life, death and Resurrection of the Messiah. If you have not read Wright before, this would be an ideal way to get to know his captivating writing style. Lent For Everyone: Mark, Year B is available as a traditionally built book, but it also can be read on your phone via a free Bible app called YouVersion. It was offered as one of the Plans for devotional use during Lent in 2015. A bonus to reading Lent For Everyone: Mark, Year B through this app is the daily reminder that you can set to appear as a banner on your phone. And as you may have surmised, Wright has also written a Lenten devotional from the other synoptic gospels: Matthew is Year A and Luke is Year C; both are in traditional book form.

This year’s choice for my Lenten reading is a book that was listed at www.Hearts&Minds book blog called BookNotes. The name of the book is The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter (William P. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2002) by Fleming Rutledge.

In the Author’s Forward to The Undoing of Death, Rutledge tells a story about how her husband called her to describe a sign in a neighborhood card and gift shop. The sign declared, “We make Easter easy.” Fleming writes, “I guess that meant they were offering one-stop shopping for all the eggs, flowers, cards and bunnies you might need, but it struck my husband and me both as an absolutely classic example of the human tendency to flee as far away from the Cross as we possibly can.”

Rutledge goes on to say if one does not participate in the “ancient liturgical wisdom of the church,” it is possible to attend Palm Sunday service on one weekend, and the next weekend come back for Easter Sunday service and be completely oblivious to what happened to Jesus on the days in between. But Rutledge also offers an explanation as to why liturgy alone is not adequate to an understanding of the events of Holy Week:

“The reason the liturgy is not sufficient by itself is that the Cross is not self-interpreting. As St. Paul clearly expected his congregations to understand, God has given us the apostolic gift and task of proclaiming ‘The word of the Cross.’ ”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Rutledge has satisfied St. Paul’s expectations in The Undoing of Death; in this absorbing and beautifully illustrated book, Fleming Rutledge graciously proclaims the word of the Cross. As far as her approach to her sermons, Rutledge notes, “The emphasis is on metaphors and images rather than ‘rationalistic theories.’ “

Here is the close of one of Rutledge’s sermons for Good Friday: “Put yourself in the place of the disciples. I encourage you, today, to try to imagine their situation. If we can do so, we will understand and celebrate Easter as never before. It is three o’clock on Good Friday. Capture this moment. This is the space between Good Friday and Easter. Jesus is dead. All is blackness and despair. Can you feel the magnitude of what he has done? Christ has descended into hell for us. Satan has had his way. There is no human hope left. The long awaited Messiah has died the despised death of the lowest criminal class. Nothing we can do will bring him back. All of the spring flowers and sunshine and Easter eggs and greeting cards and positive thinking in the world will not bring him back. We are left in the wreckage, in the darkness, in the silence. There is nothing — nothing — that can rebuild this wreckage, nothing that can lighten this darkness, nothing that can break the silence — except an act of God.”

The ancient spiritual discipline of daily readings of scripture and devotional books during Lent is meant to help us get our hearts ready for the amazing happenings of Holy Week. As Easter approaches, reading about Jesus’ Passion helps to draw us closer to the occurrence that Rutledge describes as the moment when “the cosmic scale has been conclusively tipped in the opposite direction, so that sin and evil and death are not the last word, and never will be again.”