Let's Lengthen Lent
The approach of the Lenten season brings a furrow to the evangelical brow. What are we to do with it? For congregations that follow the church year there is no problem: Christians will do what they have always done. They will use Lent as a time for taking spiritual inventory. Many non-liturgical churches, by contrast, consider the forty days before Easter to be no holier than any other time of year. For them an Ash Wednesday service is simply a Wednesday-night prayer meeting.
The word "Lent" itself doesn't help us much. It is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to lengthen" and refers to a season when the days become longer, i.e., spring. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the number forty was "evidently suggested by the forty days' fasts of Moses, Elijah, and especially our Lord himself."
Since the fourth century A.D. the Church has generally observed Lent as a time of fasting, of inner examination, of abstaining from festivities, of alms-giving, and of more strict attendance at worship. The first break in Lenten observance in Europe may have occurred in 1522 when Ulrich Zwingli sided with certain Zurich printers who insisted they had to have something more invigorating to eat than fish on Fridays to carry out their duties. In the years since, dispensations have gradually eroded the discipline of the holy season in the traditional churches. Virtually all dietary requirements have been lifted in quite recent times. At the same time pre-Lenten festivals such as the Mardi Gras have turned into bacchanals that have become a reproach to civilization.
So what do we do? Observe Lent or ignore it? Follow the disciplines or celebrate our Reformation heritage by doing what we please-including staying at home and watching television?
For the answer we must turn to the Scriptures themselves. If I read my New Testament correctly, the whole life of the believer is to be lived in the power of the Spirit. Once the Paraclete takes command of our lives, once he personally fills us with the love of God, there is no further need to be troubled about Lent. Or about Pentecost, or Christmas, or Easter, or any other "special day" or "days" on the church calendar. We can attend stated services or not attend; fast or not fast; kneel or not kneel. We are free to do as the Holy Spirit directs, in the light of Scripture.
The real challenge facing the believer is not, therefore, "What shall I give up for Lent?" but rather, "How can I be filled with the Spirit?" Perhaps that sounds too simplistic. The New Testament quite often comes across that way.
In one of his letters Brother Lawrence (Nicholas Herman) writes:
It is a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times; we are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer. … I made this my business as much all the day long as at the appointed time of prayer; for at all times, every hour, every minute, even in the height of my business, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God. As for my set hours of prayer, they are only a continuation of the same exercise.
Undoubtedly the leaders of the fourth-century church devised the Lenten church to honor our Lord in the period preceding Holy Week. One cannot fault their motive, and certainly one can only admire the discipline that resulted. Yet it is with an equally sound motive that the Apostle Paul warns the Galatian Christians against observing "days, and months, and times, and years." He is standing in the great tradition of the Prophet Isaiah, who thundered, "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD. … Bring no more vain ablations" (Isaiah 1: 11, 13).