Friday, March 10, 2006

Lent for the Liturgically-Challenged

In the comments for this post, Kennan writes:
For those of us who grew up in liturgically-challenged Protestant churches in the States, I'd be interested to know of a good source for information on the lenten season. Why no meat on Fridays (particularly when some scholars would suggest a Thursday or even Wednesday crucifiction might have been more likely)? Why fast one thing? What does it all mean?

Rather than simply not caring to observe the church year, I think that many Baptist-type protestants in the States (myself included) have never been made aware of why these observances can be a meaningful part of the Christian walk. Following the tradition without knowing what it means is not something I have ever found beneficial.

These are some great questions, so here are some of Team Redd's (belated) thoughts on Lent, in no way comprehensive or authoritative. And a disclaimer: both of us grew up in the Methodist tradition, which acknowledges Lent but doesn't always promote strict observance. So, many of these thoughts are still works in progress.

First and foremost, observance of Lent is not commanded by the Scriptures. As a result, Christians cannot have their consciences bound to honor the season or to follow any of the specific observances associated with it.

On the other hand, as with many Christian traditions, there is much benefit to be found in observing Lent, as well as the church year in general. As a voluntary observance, Lent can be a useful time for building faith and discipline. But as Kennan notes, observance without understanding is rarely beneficial. So those who would endeavor to observe Lent (in whatever form) would do well to learn why the season is observed, what it is, and (perhaps just as importantly) what it is not. Lenten observances that are uninformed or superstitious threaten to instill, as the Apostle Paul might say, practices that "have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

Christians have been observing the season of Lent for almost 2000 years in some form (although the specific practices have developed and diversified over the centuries). By observing Lent, we demonstrate our connection to the faithful who have gone before us, and we offer a reminder that Christ's Church extends throughout history and across the entire globe. Those who would write-off Lent with nothing more than a casual "that sounds pretty Roman Catholic to me!" impoverish themselves by their unfamiliarity with their spiritual ancestors.

The Scriptures speak to a broad range of human experiences, and the church year attempts to address the whole spectrum. As individuals, we naturally tend to gravitate to elements corresponding to our own affinities, but following the church year helps us avoid the neglect of the broader range of attitudes and responses. Lent helps us focus on self-control, discipline and patience.

Self-control, discipline and patience are ever-diminishing qualities in an affluent society fixated on instant gratification. Lent serves as a much-needed corrective to a very negative aspect of the surrounding culture.

The corrective should never be seen as an end in itself. Growing in our sanctification should cause us to focus more clearly on our Lord. Fasting is a prominent part of Lent because it is meant to help us more clearly identify our need for God. Self-denial can easily become a source of pride and arrogance when misused, but when used properly, it can help to amplify our understanding of our dependence on God's gracious provision in all areas of life.

The idea of giving up something for Lent is an attempt to keep Christ as our sole object of worship. Lent shouldn't be about giving up something "bad" (e.g., cursing, gossip, etc.) for 40 days, because we should already be striving to rid ourselves of those things. Instead, Lenten fasting should be about preventing good things from turning into idols. As John Piper would argue, fasting (in general) is a weapon at our disposal to keep God's good gifts from supplanting Him as the sole object of our devotion.

Sundays should not be included in the 40 days of Lent. Although some traditions do include Sundays (most notably the Eastern church), the prevailing position views the Lord's Day as always a day of celebration of Christ's victory over sin and death.

Lent is not merely a period of privation and denial. The positive aspects of the season should include an increased focus on prayer, service/charity to others, and reading of the Scriptures. Granted, these activities should be part and parcel of the Christian life, anyway, but Lent should serve to intensify obedience in these areas.

Most importantly, Lent is a season of preparation for celebrating Easter. Obviously, Christians should celebrate Christ's resurrection every day, from every worship service to every devotional time to every act of love and obedience -- in every waking hour. But Easter is a time for focusing our attention on the most crucial event in history -- the act without which our faith would be in vain. Lent is a preparatory time to amplify our celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Day.

There's much more that could be said, but I'll simply defer to those who have already said it better.

For further reading:

"Keeping a Holy Lent" (from Trinity Presbyterian Church in NY)
"All About Lent!" (from
A Hunger for God (by John Piper, on fasting in general)

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