Explaining Lent (to the Reformed and otherwise)

Our good friend Jim West has offered a couple of comments regarding Lent that he suggests are in jest and are clearly labeled as “mockery” but I think show a much more willful effort to misunderstand and misrepresent the Christian tradition of observing Lent. I should note that I grew up in an evangelical Presbyterian church and I should qualify that to say it was not a very “Presbyterian” church in that Dr. Halverson did not preach or emphasize Presbyterian doctrine but was rather an expositive preacher (and an excellent one at that). So I did not grow up with the traditions of the church calendar. It was in college as I began to study medieval church history that I saw the value in “living” the liturgy, as it were.

Jim offers the following summary for “Reformed Christians (real adherents of Reformed theology).”

Lent– The hyperpious notion that if one slathers ash and dirt on one’s forehead and gives up a few non-essential pleasures during a period of 40 days one is somehow made right with God, in spite of and even indeed in contradiction oftentimes to the condition of one’s heart and one’s authentic spiritual state.

Ash Wednesday– That day when the Un-Reformed slather ash on their faces and festoon their blogs with constant reminders of their super-seriousness concerning spiritual things.  It is ‘kickoff day’ for the period of Lent, after which, as soon as the Easter Egg Hunt is over, practitioners return to their pre-Lenten state of riotous living and debauchery.

I will say upfront that hypocrisy abounds in all people (their faith or religious tradition is really irrelevant) and, in fact, I agree with the implication of Jim’s comments that Lent often has no lasting impact of the lives of many who attend Ash Wednesday services or practice in the discipline of Lent.This should not, however, preclude us from seeing the value in penitence and spiritual discipline.

Altar at St. Paul's Lutheran ChurchThis is, of course, the heart of the Ash Wednesday service: confession of our sins and recognition of Christ’s sacrifice for our forgiveness. Hardly a “Catholic myth,” Ash Wednesday is an ancient practice that, as with all liturgy, is designed to aid worshippers and guide them in their walk of faith. The imposition of the ashes reminds us of our own mortality and of the sacrifice of Jesus which is ultimately commemorated on Good Friday. Interestingly (and perhaps unknowingly) Jim cites Matt. 6:16-17 which begins, “When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting.” This is the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday and I agree that walking about the rest of the day with ashes on your head does go against this passage and teaching. That is why I know of many priests and churches who offer towels as one leaves the service in order to wash your face, not letting others know of your fasting and penitence.

If you have never gone to an Ash Wednesday service I encourage you to do so. Last year I took almost 60 students to New Orleans for our Leadership Academy. Coincidentally we arrived on Ash Wednesday so I took the students to the parish I used to attend and where I preached my first sermon: Trinity, New Orleans. Several of the students were Jewish, most were not practicing Christians, and all said it was an incredible experience. Everyone should attend, if not participate, at least once in their lives, even “real” reformed Christians.

I have written about Lent before and you can find my comments from two years ago about the discipline of Lent here. Jim insists he is simply having fun, but I wonder if his (mis)characterization of Lent betrays actual belief. Lent is not about works leading to salvation, you are not ushered into the grace of God because you gave up some sweets, rather it is about growing strong in faith, faith that transforms our lives by the power of the Spirit. In fact, the origins of Lenten practice is preparation for baptism. Perhaps remembering that will help some to understand its meaning. We are not saved through our efforts during these 40 days and 40 nights, but we are seeking to live a more holy life in remembrance and recognition that Jesus did so before and for us.

Spiritual discipline is like any other, it requires effort, dedication, and consistency. These are all things that I often seem to lack. Lent provides us with the excuse to be more diligent in our study of Scripture, prayers, and charity. That is not to say that we should not be doing it at all other times in our lives, but this helps us to develop “muscle memory” so that once the 40 days are over we continue such practices. Many do also give up some things for Lent (and even take some on in order to give them up, something I do not hold to and the reason why I am not writing about Mardi Gras which is not part of the Christian calendar) and this to is intended, like a fast at other times, to draw us nearer to God in devotion and cleanse and prepare us for Good Friday and Easter Sunday, to receive Christ more fully into our lives.

Some may not view me as a “real Reformed Christian” but I certainly would categorize myself as such. After all, in spite of what some may say, the Anglican tradition is Reformed. (It is not perfect, to say the very least, but what tradition or church is?) What I can tell you is that this reformed [mfn]I wonder if the “R” is imperative, does it indicate some secret handshake I am (blissfully) unaware of?[/mfn] Christian has grown more deeply in his faith as a result of Ash Wednesday and observing Lent. I wish the same for you all.

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