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Lent is not tidy. Days grow longer (the word "Lent" comes from "lengthen"), the ground thaws, and the next thing we know, everything is filthy. Our windows need washing, our temples need cleansing, the earth itself needs a good bath. The English names for these months come from ancient words that reflect the need to roll up our sleeves this season: February ("purification") and March ("the spirit of war"). Good names. Winter doesn't leave without blustery battles that push things over and mess things up and even break things. Lent, if we honestly face its fury, will leave the landscape littered with bits and pieces of ourselves.

Sometimes the only antidote is to take more of the poison. And so on our foreheads we rub dirt: Eden gone to ashes, the dustbin emptied of a winter's worth of soot, last year's leaves riddled with worms, the broken earth turned by the plow, the dry earth thirsty for water to make it clay of a new creation. And when Lent is done and the Passover arrives we'll have water in abundance, water to bathe our feet and water to drown the demons and water to wash away the winter. And, as Bishop Ambrose reminds us, even if we forget to fill the font, there'll be water in abundance in our tears.

Those of us who are already baptized keep Lent in sympathy with the "elect" (the catechumens chosen for baptism this Easter). The sympathy is genuine. After all, our lots seem the same. What baptism began in us can readily be undone--and probably has been.

We are all outside of paradise. We are locked up aboard an unsteerable ship, and we bide our time, unsure of ever reaching land, hungrily eyeing each other as the foodstores fail. We are that tainted generation of former slaves who now must perish in the wilderness on the outside chance that it will help our freeborn children enter into their promised rest.

Ash Wednesday is a kind of baptismal branding. We are marked on our foreheads with the cross of Christ, which is a tree of life to beckon us back to the garden, a ship's sextant to guide us to harbor, a bronze serpent to save us from dying in the desert.

Coming back to baptism is hard work, like pruning vines, like plowing the earth, like the discipline of training for a contest. Of course, neither the hard work nor the training do the job. All of us, the faithful and the elect and the penitents, will learn this once again, when Lent is over and we have failed but God has not.

With all the mud flung this season, with the wind bowling us over, the sunlight blinding us, with our sore muscles getting the better of us, it's no wonder we save such fascinating, often farcical, sometimes even slapstick stories to tell during Lent. We hear about Sarah's disbelieving laughter and Abraham's endless bargaining over Sodom. Jacob is duped into marrying the wrong wife, and Rachel connives to bear babies. Lent's strange stories borrow plots from each other. Both Joseph and Jeremiah get thrown into cisterns, and Rebekah is but one of the women at the well drawing water for a thirsty stranger. Jonah and Elijah and Job are all so frazzled that they want to drop dead on the spot.

During Lent we tell stories of escape and of tables turned around. Esther works up the nerve to spoil Haman's plot against her and her people, but then he gets dragged to his own execution under the accusation of lechery. A king tosses Daniel into a pit of lions and then spends the night fasting in remorse, hoping against hope that the lions fast too. A pair of judges, shamed by Susanna, haul her off to court and accuse her of the crime they themselves attempted. But Susanna has the last laugh.

A Lent Sourcebook is full of words about mud and wind, plowing and raking, sowing and pruning, poisons and their antidotes, cisterns and fountains, battling and branding, wayfaring and weeping--about Lent's lengthening days preparing us for the Passover. And these two volumes have been filled with texts about the mysteries that these images have come to represent in our religious tradition: conversion and repentance, renewal and rebirth, the emptying of ourselves, the filling of this emptiness with eternity.

Lent is here divided into days. We begin with the carnival time that sets up a foil for Ash Wednesday's startling slap in the face. As we move through Lent, each day begins with a brief scripture verse, most often drawn from the Mass. This verse is followed by about two dozen other entries. That's a lot, too much for one sitting, enough perhaps for many Lents. An order for prayer is given at the beginning of each book to help structure the texts in a daily ritual, an "office of readings" for individuals or households.

Lent is often called a journey. That means that at the end of Lent we should expect to find ourselves somewhere different from where we started. Our destination is Easter, promised land and homeland. The season's scripture readings, psalms and prayers (from the liturgy of the hours and from the Mass) map the lenten itinerary. These are the backbone of this Sourcebook. Other texts offer images and ideas, stories and symbols that have been juxtaposed, to make connections and to reveal contrasts. Here's one example: On the Friday of the third week, in telling the tale of Jacob's steadfast love for Rachel, we also tell the gospel parable of a gardener's efforts to coax a fig tree into bearing fruit. Juggled around these two stories are texts about patience and persistence--appropriate topics midway in the lenten pilgrimage. Note that putting texts into a sequence means that each has been given a context. This is risky because that context can illuminate or can overshadow the text. Let the reader beware. This may sometimes be an occasion to go back to the sources themselves; that's one reason for the endnotes.

Lent has a "shape," owing in part to the games we Christians play with numbers like 40. The arrangement of A Lent Sourcebook reflects this shape. The 40 days of Lent are counted from the first Sunday (day one) to Holy Thursday (day 40). The art that begins each of the 40 days includes that day's number.

Ash Wednesday and the three days following are a kind of preface to the season. We use these days to introduce three key images: the expulsion from paradise, the great flood and the journey of Abraham and Sarah. In former times, these stories were the focus of the office of readings during the three weeks before Lent.

This Sourcebook includes a few accommodations to practicality: Lent's weekday Mass readings and the lectionary for the office of readings are organized in a one-year cycle, but the Sunday Mass readings are in a three-year cycle. To keep Sundays from getting too long in this book, many of the readings, prayer texts and rites associated with lenten Sundays found a home on weekdays. (For example, the gospel of the raising of Lazarus, proclaimed in Year A on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, is placed here on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, a day that has a long association with this gospel story. Some of that Sunday's scrutiny texts will also be found on this Saturday.)

A Lent Sourcebook has turned out a bit like Lent itself--littered, muddy, blustery in parts, often taking work to plow through. This book will bring its reader into company with Job, with Jeremiah, with the despondent psalmist who penned the 88th, with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Of all of the seasonal Sourcebooks, here are the largest number of texts to knot a stomach, suppress an appetite or sour a mood. There are words here for folks who are hungry, depressed, ill, embattled, out of sorts, out in the cold. There are cracked mirrors here, and crematoria, and human bones half buried, and the stench of many a Lazarus.

But that is not all. Here in these pages, as in Lent, is a bush blazing, a prodigal returning, Nineveh's cattle bellowing their joy, an ark about to open, a fiery furnace soon to drip with dew. - Peter Mazar (from the Introduction)

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