Lent constitutes both a challenge and an embarrassment to Protestantism. Each year as the season approaches it brings with it the temptation to equivocate. We do not know where we stand because our feet seem to be stuck in both camps.
On one side, our conscience serves to remind us that (if we are the practicing Christians we claim to be) we had better "do something" about observing the most sacred season in the Christian calendar. We are reminded further of what we know all too well, namely, that we have been over-indulgent, and that it would be an excellent idea to place ourselves under some kind of spiritual and physical discipline. It would not hurt us to "give up something for Lent." On the level of personal habits we could stand a more rugged Christian discipleship.
Furthermore, the world in its own careless way seems to expect something of Lent. It is a time when the claims of Jesus Christ appear to enter the scope of legitimate inquiry. Publishers issue books of sermons and devotions dealing with the cross of Christ; pastors preach messages on the events surrounding Calvary, with the confidence that even the most liberal members of their congregation will hardly criticize the subject matter; motion picture theaters cater to the seasonal fashion by endeavoring to book "religious" films, even if these turn out to be sextravaganzas like Solomon and Sheba and Demetrius and the Gladiators.
For the minister to ignore Lent then would seem to be almost as wrong as for the minister to ignore Christmas. A rich opportunity for making Jesus Christ and his salvation real to sinners will have been neglected. The priest and Levite pass on the other side.
On the other hand, a sense of indignation stirs within the Protestant breast, even to the pitch of revolt, at what the Church has done with Lent in the past. When we see how the priesthood has used Lent to manipulate and exploit the faithful; when we survey the fuss and feathers it has raised over dietary prescriptions, and the way it has proclaimed its manifold regulations, specific demands, and sacrificial requirements, we are left wondering what it is all about. We want to draw the line with Luther and cry out, "Hier steh' ich; ich kann nicht anders!," and postulate the principle that every day is Lent for the Christian who lives every day in the shadow of the Cross. We are ready to cheer when Zwingli stands before the cantonal council of Zürich and defends his printer's claim that the typesetters need to eat solid meat to do their work; and why in heaven's name shouldn't they have it?
Furthermore it is certainly patent that Lent is nowhere observed as a sacred season in the New Testament; hence it must be a development of later Church tradition. (The same may be said, of course, of Christmas and Easter.) As if to forewarn against such eventualities, Paul specifically cautions the Galatians against observing "days, and months, and times, and years," and against returning in bondage to "the weak and beggarly elements." Why then should not evangelical Christians forget about Lent altogether, and "stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free"? Why not stand alone in blazing nonconformity, and love God, and do as we please?
Such being the situation, we have our choice of the horns of the dilemma. Understandably, there will be a strong temptation to straddle. For example, when the clerk-stenographer complains to her pastor that she is the only girl in her office who did not wear a smudge of ashes on her forehead on Ash Wednesday; that she, who says her prayers daily and disciplines her life and sings in the choir and tithes, is being singled out during Lent as apparently the only non-Christian on the staff, what will the minister do? Will he open the Book of Galatians or will he put in a supply of ashes? Or will he do both? Or neither?
Many ministers prefer not to go as far as prescribing the eating of fish during Lent. But they will patronizingly throw a fish, so to speak, to the whole Lenten idea. That is, they will make some occasional references to Lent here and there during the worship service; they will hold a special series of midweek meetings; and they will recommend certain Lenten reading. But the basic concept of Lent as a time of prayer and fasting in memory of our Lord's passion and death will receive only lip service. And our Roman Catholic friends, who by and large take the Lenten season rather seriously, will smile gently at clumsy Protestant attempts to mark the occasion, and will murmur, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
As a first step toward solution, we could refer to certain Scripture passages (Ecclesiastes 3:1; Luke 22:19; Acts 20:16, and so forth) which indicate that the Christian's observance of certain sacred periods is not wholly inappropriate. A basis for such observance may even be found in the divine order of Creation (Genesis 2:1 ff.). Surely it is not by accident that God established a rhythm in the universe, so evident in the natural order. Man is part of his universe; and just as our Lord had his seasons of prayer upon the mountain, so it is meet for us to spend time in contemplation of our Saviour and of his vicarious sacrifice in our behalf. And what better time is there for such sustained reflection than during the sacred days prior to the celebration of His resurrection?
Lent can become a time when material things are put again in their proper secondary position; when we see in the spiritual the unconquerable forces of life. It can become a time of self-examination, when we reflect upon our present position in the pilgrimage and check our directions. It can become a time of personal readjustment, not through mental resolutions to do better but through yielding ourselves afresh to the God who demands to be obeyed. And it can become a time when, by following the battered path to Calvary, we identify ourselves once again with the Saviour who makes all things new.
The task of the Church during Lent is to make this experience real to the people who are Christ's body. The form is unimportant and may well vary from group to group and from taste to taste. What is all important is that the form support, not obstruct, the way of the Holy Spirit of God who brings life to ritual and free worship alike, and who turns ashes into new men.
This article originally appeared in the March 14, 1960, issue of Christianity Today.
See our other seasonal article today, "Let's Lengthen Lent | The season can be a beautiful and deeply moving experience of walking with Jesus to the cross."
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