Septua*what*ima?

I’ve recently begun sending a weekly pastoral letter to my congregation. When the contents of the letter are universally helpful, I’ll post them here for the benefit of all. This week, I cover the practice of preparing for Lent with the “Gesima” Sundays (something which was done in many Lutheran congregations through the lifetime of The Lutheran Hymnal, but which was dropped with the lectionary used in Lutheran Worship. It has been restored along with the Historic One-Year Lectionary in Lutheran Service Book. I believe this is one of the stronger arguments for use of the Historic One-Year Lectionary over against the Three-Year.

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Dear beloved in the Lord,

Last Sunday we said goodbye to our alleluias as we came down from the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, Peter, James, and John. Just after the events of the Transfiguration, Luke records that “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51)

Jesus knows that His glory is not revealed fully until He is hanging from the tree. When John writes in the beginning of his Gospel “We beheld his glory,” the event of the crucifixion for the sin of the world is to which he is referring.

We sing of this in the hymn “Alleluia, Song of Gladness” at the end of the Transfiguration Divine Service:

Alleluia cannot always Be our song while here below;
Alleluia, our transgressions Make us for a while forgo;
For the solemn time is coming When our tears for sin must flow.

That solemn time is all of Lent, though most specifically Holy Week (from Palm Sunday through sunset on Holy Saturday), when we hear of the full impact of our sin: the Son of God dies in our place.

The season of Lent is a penitential season in which we spend 40 days pondering the weight of our sin. We gather on Wednesday evenings to hear in Scripture and sermon of our desperate need for God to provide the solution to our sinfulness. Sometimes Christians will fast – that is, give something up – as an expression of their striving against sin. Lent itself is not static: As the season progresses the liturgical custom of the Church is to continue giving things up in the Divine Service. We’ve given up the Alleluia. On Ash Wednesday we give up the Gloria in Excelsis. Finally, from Judica (5th Sunday in Lent) we also stop saying the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father, etc.) All this is done as an action which expresses our great sorrow over our sin. Is it mandated or required? No. But it is good to teach just how serious our sin is, and these ceremonies help convey this truth clearly to all who are gathered in the Divine Service.

In fact, Lent is taken so seriously by Christ’s Church that we’ve even set aside the three Sunday before Ash Wednesday to begin preparing for the seriousness of Lent. These three Sundays are called Pre-Lent or sometimes the older name of Gesimatide is used.

These Sundays are a way of coming down the mountain. We’ve been through the joyful Time of Christmas, ending with Transfiguration. Now we prepare to face the seriousness of our sin yet again. We don’t do this without hope, though: The conclusion of Lent and Holy Week has traditionally been the great Vigil of Easter, which takes place after sunset on Holy Saturday (the night before Easter morning). While we don’t yet meet for the Vigil here at Good Shepherd, we can keep in mind the main theme of the Vigil: baptized by God into the death and resurrection of Christ, our sin is conclusively dealt with, having been washed away from us as far as the east is from the west.

The Gospel readings for the three Sundays of Pre-Lent preview this truth that God Himself is for us, is with us, and is helping us. The three Sundays respectively reflect the wonderful Gospel truth that we are: saved by Grace Alone; converted by Scripture Alone; received by Faith Alone.

You’ll notice these three themes highlighted on the bulletin covers for the next three Sundays. Listen carefully to the readings, and especially the Gospel reading, to discover these truths. I’ll do my best – by the grace of God – to clearly bring these out in the preaching as well.

If you want to know more about Pre-Lent, look for an insert in this week’s bulletin. We’ll leave some extras on the center counter in the narthex if you’re unable to be in the Divine Service this Sunday.

In the Peace of Christ,
Pastor Schuermann