An interruption to the weekly teaching videos: I wrote this piece for the newsletter at one of my churches. After completing it, I thought the idea in it might be appreciated by other Christians who are thinking how they might spend Lent this year.
The idea isn’t stunningly original, but it’s simple. And it’s a discipline of engagement rather than a discipline of abstinence. See what you think. I’d love to know if you find this helpful.
Between Christmas-Epiphany and Easter I find the calendar of the ‘Church Year’ confusing. And the culprit is Lent.
Why? Well, once we’ve got past the birth of Jesus and the (slightly later) visit of the Magi, we then usually go to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at his baptism, having ignored the temptations, because we’re saving them for Lent. We then skip through the early and middle parts of his ministry, right up to the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday Before Lent. But then, instead of heading towards Jerusalem, we jump back to the wilderness temptations for the beginning of Lent and follow Jesus’ example of fasting and self-denial for forty days right before the end of his ministry rather than at the beginning. And while we’re doing it, we do another quick run through his public ministry.
As the introduction to one famous TV comedy show used to say every week, ‘Confused? You will be!’
Is it any wonder that many experienced Christians still don’t get a grip on the great biblical narrative when the church organises things in such an inconsistent way, and has done for centuries? In my weekly videos and sermons this year I’ve tried to bring some semblance of order to the post-Epiphany/pre-Lent period by concentrating on the Lectionary Gospel passages about the early and middle part of Jesus’ ministry, so that we can keep the story building. But once Lent kicks in, the continuity will go to pot.
So I have a suggestion. Make your Lent discipline one in which you read all four of the Gospels. At two chapters a day, you will get through them all in Lent, and that will be less than ten minutes’ reading each day.
Here is a suggested pattern. Because there are four documents to read – not strictly Four Gospels, but one Gospel and one Jesus according to four different writers – you will get a better flavour of each if you read them separately. I recommend that you begin with Mark. It was almost certainly the first to be written, it is the simplest, and Matthew and Luke clearly depend on it for some of their material.
Once you’ve read Mark, then read Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, followed by Luke, the most Gentile of the four.
Finally, read John. Most scholars think it was the last to be written. John’s style and material are very different from the other three. While people puzzle about that difference, a worthy theory is that John expected his audience at the very least to know the content of Mark, so he sees no point in repetition.
Now this approach isn’t without its own problems. Mark, Matthew, and Luke will take you on a similar shaped story culminating in just one visit to Jerusalem by the adult Jesus. John, on the other hand, writes of three visits that Jesus makes to Jerusalem during his ministry. But you will get more of the ‘big story’ of Jesus’ life and ministry.
As I said, this is not a demanding discipline to try. There are actually forty-six days in Lent (because the Sundays are additional to the forty days). If you begin on Ash Wednesday, you will spend eight days in Mark, fourteen in Matthew, twelve in Luke, and either ten or eleven in John. You will finish around Good Friday or Holy Saturday, just in time to celebrate Easter.
I encourage you to try this. And if you do, I would love to hear how you get on. Please give me some feedback about how it goes for you. Let’s do something that engages deeply with Jesus this year.