Lent started yesterday with Ash Wednesday. I usually have thought of lent as a “catholic thing”, and ignored it. But recently, someone in my church asked my why we don’t celebrate lent anymore.
After checking with my secretary and finding out that it wasn’t a thing we had done much with, I responded “because Luther nailed 95 thesis to the Wittenberg door”, which I noted was a joke, but points to the fact that many (I guessed most) protestants view it as a catholic tradition.I also noted that the high church traditions (more liturgical traditions) that are more similar to the Catholics tend to be more likely to do stuff around Lent- but I wasn’t entirely sure. Then I started doing research and reading.
Now, I wonder if it’s something valuable that we have lost something in our lower church traditions. Lent is about focusing on the self denial of the cross in a deep and unique way. Lent is about focusing on the suffering of Christ, and by partaking in the fast, by giving up something, you are reflecting on the ultimate sacrificial suffering of the cross.
As I did my research yesterday, and was surprised to see how deeply imbedded it is. The church father Irenaeus, who was mentored by Polycarp (who was trained by John the apostle), mentions Lent in a letter, talking about 'the 40'. That's a deep, deep well; one that we would be wise to pay attention to.
Back in the early 1800’s, the legendary Charles Simeon, the author of the great Horae Homileticae Commentary Series, wraps the knuckles of us protestants for this as he writes:
From the earliest period, even from the time that God first had a visible Church in the world, there have been particular seasons set apart for humiliation, and fasting, and prayer. In the Christian Church, the appointment of forty days at this part of the year (Lent) for that purpose is of great antiquity. The two days with which this season commenced were observed with peculiar solemnity: the one (Shrove Tuesday) was spent in recollecting and confessing their sins; the other (Ash Wednesday) in fasting and supplication.
That these institutions were carried to a very foolish excess, and that they degenerated into many absurd superstitions, under the reign of Popery, is readily acknowledged: but they were good in their origin; and our Church has wisely retained such a portion of them as might tend to the real edification of her members: and if we were more observant of them than we are, we should find substantial benefit to our souls.
But, alas! we have run into an opposite extreme, insomuch that not only the observances are laid aside, but the very intention of them is almost forgotten: and instead of complying with the design which is intimated in the names given to the days, we render them perfectly ridiculous, by substituting a trifling change in our food for the most solemn acts of devotion before God. (Horae Homileticae)
I find his comments interesting. He makes clear that celebrating Lent is part of the Church's historic practice. It's been abused (think Mardi Gras and Fat Tueday), and we've sometimes overreacted by pitching the baby out with the bathwater, but at its core, it’s incredibly solid, and probably, incredibly valuable for us as we focus on the cross and the suffering.
A few years back, blogger Trevin Wax wrote this:
I know that Lent is not kept by most evangelicals, and that’s okay. There’s no Scripture passage forbidding it or advocating it, so whether one decides to prepare for Easter in this manner is left to one’s conscience. Still, while fasting during Lent may not mandated by Scripture, the discipline of fasting is. Jesus’ instructions on fasting presuppose and reinforce the discipline. (After all, He says, “When you fast,” not if.) It’s true that, as with any spiritual discipline, there can be a tendency towards excess and legalism. But as I look at American evangelicalism today, I hardly think that we are suffering from too much fasting.
This season serves as a time of reflection upon the sufferings of Christ. It is a season of repentance, a time of dying to self that anticipates new life on the other side, just like the last days of winter anticipate the arrival of Spring.
An old article in Christian History notes, "There seems to be potential for evangelicals to embrace the season again." For those who have more questions about Lent, Tim Kimberly had a helpful article, A Short History of Lent, as does Mark D. Roberts, How Lent can make a difference in your relationship with God.
Lent is by no means requirement for believers. But many find it helpful, and it’s worth re-examining as we point our hearts and minds towards holy week, and reflect on the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.