In less than a month, parts of the Christian world will begin the 40-day countdown to Easter. To help readers break through the rituals and experience the sea son, the Rev. Walter Wangerin Jr., a former Evansville pastor, author and teacher, has written a book of daily Lenten devotions. "Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Jesus as Recorded in Mark," will be published this month by Zondervan Publishing House in time for the Ash Wednesday beginning of Lent on March 4. Wangerin left Evansville in the fall for Valparaiso, Ind., where he is writer-in-residence at Valparaiso University.
For many, Lent has become an intellectual ritual, and Wangerin wants to help broaden the experience to include the emotions.
He opens the book by relating his first encounter with Lent, when, as a child, he heard his father's moving Lenten sermons.
"A ritual, if it works well, is an excellent drama in that the people who participate are like actors and they really do experience what happens," Wangerin said. "When that doesn't happen, it becomes what you call rote, just going through the motions. I would like it if this series of devotions made it less mechanical and more dramatic, personal and interesting."
The ritual of a 40-day Lenten observance began in the fourth century. By the sixth century Ash Wednesday became the first day of the observance which continues daily, except Sundays, until Easter. At first the observance of Christ's Resurrection was extended from one day to a 40-hour period and eventually to 40 days, corresponding to the time Moses spent on the mountain, the duration of the journey of Elijah, and Christ's fast in the wilderness to fight the devil.
Wangerin wrote, "We, in matching our own forty days of faithful commitment to the Lord's, admit the reality of Grace in our lives. This story is the crux of Christianity through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ," he said. "There is really no other story more significant to Christians -- not Christmas, not saints -- than this story. This is our center and it should be experienced. I want the reader to encounter what is happening there, not just ruminate or think about it."
Wangerin admits that when he initially planned the series of devotions, based around the 14th and 15th chapters of the Gospel of Mark, he was taking a meditative and intellectual approach.
But he surprised himself with the drama and emotion which emerged as he wrote and digested the Easter story.
"Then I began to realize the person speaking was not necessarily me anymore," Wangerin said. "In the one devotion where someone offers to carry the cross and a soldier laughs and says, 'What, a woman,' is when I realized the narrator was a woman. It was a discovery for me as I went step by step and somewhere near the end I realized it was Mary Magdalene."
He wants the reader to take it even further and step into Mary's shoes.
"My hope, even when the narrator becomes Mary, is to entice the reader to become Mary from within and know how it must have felt to be the person there and to see him come down from the cross and see him buried. It would please me if the reader felt exactly what Mary felt."
Wangerin wrote the devotions about five years ago. They were printed in pamphlet form and about 180,000 were distributed.
The dramatic preface, in which Wangerin crawls into the Easter story and onto another cross beside Jesus, was written after Wangerin had revised the devotions, and unified the tone for book publication.
"It seems to me necessary that any faith cannot be merely an intellectual assertion but must be an experience of my whole being," Wangerin said.
Wangerin said that every religion he knows of involves a story. "When a story is reduced to
plain doctrine and theology, it becomes a mental assertion and doesn't involve the whole human
being," Wangerin said. "If it is going to be faith, it has to embrace the whole person, emotion and reason, body and senses.
"When a story is heard and not analyzed, and when it is first experienced and not interpreted, it embraces the person so that one's faith is all of what one is."
Returning to work as a writing teacher is forcing Wangerin to hone his own critical editing of his
work. He said he first experienced teaching's effect on his writing while teaching at the University of Evansville.
"As I would assess or criticize the students' work, I think I became better at assessing and criticizing," he said. "I applied it to my own work with less and less fear that I was messing with my soul or that the revision would lose the truth."
Although Wangerin has been in Valparaiso for a semester, he said he still hasn't settled in because his wife, Thanne, remained in Evansville last semester while their daughter, Talitha, finished high school. Mrs. Wangerin was finally able to join her husband last week. They have purchased a home on 17 acres abutting 100 acres of woods.
As a writer in residence, Wangerin will teach one class a semester. Last semester he taught an
upper-level creative writing course. This semester his class combines writing and theology and is
called "Telling the Sacred Tales Again."
Wangerin said the classes are scheduled at night so he will have the day to devote to his writing. Wangerin said his latest book, "Crying for a Vision," about the Lakota Indians, has just been accepted by a publisher but no release date has been set.