Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal by Esau McCaulley

Lent cover imageSummary: A brief exploration of the seasons of Lent and its purpose and practice. 

Esau McCaulley’s book on Lent came out a year ago, but I did not have time to read it during Lent last year, so I held onto it to read during Lent this year. In the meantime, I have started attending an Episcopal church. I have been theologically moving from my Baptist roots to an Anglican/Episcopal theology for the past ten years or so.

I will not lay out my whole reasoning here, but there are three main reasons for moving toward an Anglican understanding. Practically, I know that no ecclesiastical system is perfect. Abuse and corruption can (and do) happen in every system. However, I have been increasingly convinced that our ecclesiology needs structure within it to handle sin within the church. Within the US Episcopal church and the ANCA, there have been very public breakdowns of that system, and they have not worked as they should have. I lament the breakdown, and I think reforms need to be made and enforced, but within the SBC, the discussion has to start at a different place: whether or not the denomination should have structures to hold churches accountable for sin. I would theologically and practically rather start with the assumption that the church broadly should hold local churches and local pastors/Christians accountable for sin than throw up our hands and say we have no tools to deal with the problems plaguing many churches.

Second, I have been increasingly convinced that Baptist theology, or at least the streams that I have moved in, undervalued sacraments. Baptism was held up as necessary, but only one form of baptism. My church in Chicago, where I was a deacon, refused to admit Christians to membership if they had not been baptized as an adult. Several people opposed being baptized again as an adult because they had been baptized as an infant and did not believe that they should reject their previous baptism. I understand this is common in many Baptist churches, but I reject this as a methodological requirement that refuses to recognize the church’s universality.

But that church and, even more so, the church I attended for years after moving to Georgia practically marginalized communion as a sacrament. In my previous Georgia church, with one exception in the nearly two decades I attended, there was never communion served during a Sunday morning service. Communion was only served during special weeknight services that were roughly quarterly. I do not think I participated in more than 10-15 communion services at that church. The rationalization is that the Sunday services were oriented toward evangelism and that they were taking seriously the idea that communion was for Christians. This was a perfect example of good intent (evangelism), which produced a distortion of the actual purpose of the church. A church that did not provide the sacraments to Christians because of its orientation toward non-Christians showed how the purpose of the church was distorted.

Most directly for this book, James KA Smith and others have convinced me that liturgy matters to the practice of Christianity. I do morning and evening prayer almost every day. I now participate in a eucharist service almost every week. While I don’t know the liturgy as well as I want to, practicing it by being a part of a liturgical community and reading books like this one help me to understand more deeply what the details of the liturgy mean. This series (Fullness of Time) has five current books (Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.) I read Christmas during Christmas. I hope to read the rest over the next year as the seasons come around. This is best summed up in the quote, “Ritual is both a means of spiritual formation (we learn through repetition) and an encounter (God meets us in the act of worship and praise in the liturgy).”

According to McCaulley, “Lent came to be about three things: the preparation of new converts for baptism, the reconciliation of those estranged from the church, and a general call for the whole church to repent and renew its commitment to Jesus.” The practice of Lent varies across time and denominations, but it has many common features. McCaulley (and the rest of the series’ authors) is in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition and orients his description of Lent to that tradition. 

He starts by describing the purpose and history of Lent and then discusses Ash Wednesday, the other rituals of Lent, the prayers and scriptures of Lent, and Holy Week. I do not know how to talk about the book better than several quotes. That isn’t my preferred way to write about books, but it is the best way here.

Lent is not about how angry God is with us for our sins. It is about a God who intervenes on our behalf to rescue us from our sins. This is why the collect for Lent in the Anglican tradition begins with these words: “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.” The focus on penitence, fasting, and confession can lead us to believe that God needs to be appeased by us or that he will accept only a groveling and miserable humanity. Behind that false belief is the idea that a life of sin is better than life with God. The only downside is that sin brings judgment. In this view, the Christian is one who has reluctantly given up their sins to avoid judgment. But this is not so. Life with God contains the good, the true, and the beautiful. God’s call to repentance is a call to give up those things that can bring only death. Ash Wednesday calls us to remember death, and by calling us to remember death it calls us to remember what causes death: sin and rebellion. By forcing us to remember our sin, it helps us realize that, at bottom, our sins are lies about the true source of joy. (Kindle Location 189)

Lent, then, is about facing our failures. But we do not encounter a God who begrudgingly forgives our sins despite his better judgment. The apostle Paul says God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). (Kindle Location 213)

Confession isn’t about going to the priest to obtain a forgiveness not otherwise available. It is about God working through clergy to help us understand the forgiveness he offers and to discern together the best way to live our lives before God. We cannot be healed of what we refuse to acknowledge. So we examine ourselves in light of God’s word for the sake of our healing and restoration. (Kindle Location 469)

“O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ they Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever Amen”

This prayer reminds us that God’s greatest glory comes not in the crushing of all opposition or immediate destruction of the disobedient. God is glorified through his mercy. To read the Bible well is to become acquainted with God’s patience. (Kindle Location 635)

Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal by Esau McCaulley Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

Leave a Comment