The season of Lent is one of the more topically scripted seasons of the year, due in part to its relative brevity and narrow focus. As is often the case, the traditional calendar is clearer than the modern calendar in terms of the ebb and flow of the season, the modern calendar losing some of its coherence due to the 3-year cycle of readings. Nevertheless, a basic contour can still be discerned. Rather than looking at traditional and modern Lent separately as we did for Epiphanytide, we can consider the tradition both old and new together.
The First Sunday of Lent is about the temptation of Jesus. This has always been the case, and has not changed in modern practice. Year B of the modern calendar almost drops the ball on this due to the fact that Mark’s Gospel only mentions the temptation in one sentence, rather than relating the whole story like Matthew and Luke. The Collect, too, is the same in both traditions, seeking to imitate Christ’s abstinence that we may move towards holiness. This is a strong “best foot forward” experience for the first Sunday of the season, making sure we’re on the right path with our spiritual disciplines that began on Ash Wednesday, with the right godly goals in mind.
The Second Sunday of Lent is a mixed bag in the modern lectionary. The three years yield the Gospel sayings of Jesus ranging from “you must be born again,” “take up your cross and follow me”, and his lament over Jerusalem. The latter two suggest a theme of looking ahead toward the liturgical culmination of Lent in the Passion of Jesus, while the former hangs back with another sort of starting place for the season. Traditionally, the Gospel lesson was about the Syro-Phoenician (or Canaanite) Woman’s great faith over which Jesus marveled. The Collect built off that, praying that God would keep us defended in body and soul because we’re defenseless (like that woman). Although that Collect remains in our Prayer Book, it does not seem to have a strong connection with the modern Gospel readings.
The Third Sunday of Lent traditionally was very similar to the second, pairing another Collect asking God to look upon us and keep us defended with another healing story from the Gospel, this time an exorcism with subsequent teaching about demons. Our Prayer Book supplies an expanded version of that Collect (first introduced in the 1979 Prayer Book) and pairs with the Gospel stories of the woman at the well, the cleansing the temple, and Jesus’ call to repent followed by the parable of the barren fig tree. The traditional pairing makes this Sunday much like the previous, while the modern Collect and lessons lean more heavily on our “restless hearts” and “heartfelt desires” that need to be rightened, healed, or cleansed.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is interesting in that one of the three years in the modern lectionary lines up with the traditional Gospel: the Feeding of the 5,000. The traditional application of this, in the Collect, was a prayer for relief instead of punishment, marking this Sunday as the lighter and more hope-filled Sunday in the Lenten sequence, visually marked by the wearing of rose vestments instead of violet. Our modern calendar, however, puts in a Collect about Jesus being our true bread from heaven, emphasizing the original Gospel story but setting it in a different context, especially in years A and C when the Gospel lesson is about the man born blind or the parable of the prodigal son. In that light, there isn’t as much reason to retain the “Rose Sunday” tradition in the modern Lent.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent, nicknamed Passion Sunday, is an anticipation of Palm Sunday. A noteworthy feature of the traditional lectionary was that major Sunday commemorations tended to have a follow-up Sunday to further explicate its meaning, but in the case of Palm Sunday, that follow-up had to be a preview Sunday instead. Originally, the Gospel was Jesus’ speech about “before Abraham was, I am” – asserting his divinity. This was paired with a lesson from Hebrews about his priestly sacrifice, so the theological import of his death on the Cross would be better appreciated on the following Sunday. The modern calendar carries out a similar function using the Gospel stories of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ saying that “the son of man must be lifted up,” and the parable of the wicked tenants. The traditional Collect was similar to those for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays, with a thematic similarity to the Collect for Good Friday, making it serve as another “preview” of the Passion to come. The modern Collect, however, is a transfer from what was originally an Eastertide Collect, asking God to fix our hearts where true joy is to be found, despite our unruly wills and affections. As far as I can see (thus far), this somewhat weakens the traditional Passion Sunday function.
The Sixth Sunday of Lent is usually called Palm Sunday, and it is the day we hear the great Passion Narrative as the Gospel. The Collect is the same, old and new, drawing upon the Epistle (Philippians 2:5-11, also unchanged) to apply Christ’s passion to us; the only difference is that the historic lectionary sticks with Matthew’s Passion and the modern cycles between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We’ll look at this in greater detail when Holy Week draws nigh.