Steven R. Harmon, author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, Frederica Mathewes-Green, the author of The Jesus Prayer, and Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, suggest why Christians should care about Lent.
To Take Up the Cross
Steven R. Harmon
In central Texas, where I grew up, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday made obvious the distinctions between how Catholics and Baptists practiced their faith.
Catholic friends came to school with ash smudges on their foreheads, ate a lot of fish, gave up various pleasures for a time, and went to extra church services. My Baptist friends and I did not. We wrongly considered this evidence that Catholics believed they had to do these things to be saved. We believed we were saved by grace and therefore didn't have to do any of that.
As a seminary student, I served as pastor of a small Baptist church in the same area. By this time I had discovered the Christian year and decided to lead the congregation to take up its observance. Advent went all right; four Sundays of anticipating Christmas didn't seem like such a bad thing. Having two Sundays in the season of Christmas seemed a bit odd, but explaining their connection to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" took care of that.
With Epiphany approaching, I knew I would have some explaining to do, so I gave an overview of the history and significance of all the seasons in the Christian year. My church members looked at me, as the local expression went, "like a calf looking at a new gate." One said, "Brother Steve, this is all very interesting, but we're not Catholic. We don't observe Lent."
Can Baptists observe Lent? All Baptist congregations observe some sort of calendar in their worship. Though many Baptists may profess that they "judge all days to be alike," in reality they do "judge one day to be better than another" (Rom. 14:5), as many expect certain days and seasons of the year to be recognized in worship services. Some of these, like Christmas and Easter, are the inheritance of the patristic church. Other special dates on the calendar of a Baptist church reflect the secular calendar. If Baptists already observe a calendar without worrying that such observances are unbiblical and hinder congregational freedom, and if they have already granted pride of place in this calendar to two feasts of patristic origin, then they can observe the Christian year, including Lent.
An extreme example of the Baptist neglect of Lent is the longtime celebration by one Baptist college of the week prior to Easter Sunday as "Resurrection Week." Without the observance of Lent, and Holy Week in particular, Easter Sunday fails to keep in proper balance the Cross and the Resurrection as the two main New Testament paradigms for the Christian life. The dominant paradigm for Christian discipleship this side of heaven is "sharing in his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10). Baptists not only can but should observe Lent, because it will help them take up the cross and follow Christ in the midst of a suffering world.
For Spiritual Exercise
"Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable …. I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:25, 27, ESV).
Lent is a time of year to remember that God has seen fit to make us not airy spirits but embodied human beings living in a beautiful, material world. The soul fills the body the way fire fills a lump of coal, and what the body learns, the soul absorbs as well. Spiritual disciplines such as fasting are analogous to weight-lifting equipment. One who uses them in a disciplined way will be stronger, not just when he's lifting weights, but also for every situation he meets.