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.
While some people think of Lent as a time to personally choose something to "give up," the practice of the Eastern Christians, from the earliest centuries, is to observe a common fast. This is not a complete fast, but rather abstaining from meat and dairy—basically a vegan diet. Tertullian (A.D. 160-225) likened it to Daniel's diet in the king's court, when he abstained from meat and rich foods and grew stronger than those who feasted.
There's something to be said for following an ancient, universal Lenten custom like this instead of choosing your own adventure. Most of us are not capable of being our own spiritual directors. We don't have the perspective needed to choose the things that will really change us. (Deep down, we may not even want to change. I like to say, "Everyone wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.") A fast like this, observed for 2,000 years by Eastern Christians in lands from Eastern Europe to Africa, India, and Alaska, is time-tested. (The Lenten vegan fast was once a Western custom too, seen by some churches still holding a "pancake dinner" just before Lent to use up the butter, milk, and eggs.)
In Lent we are one not only with the church through time, but also with those in our local church. Orthodox Lent begins with the Rite of Forgiveness, in which all church members form a circle and, one at a time, stand face-to-face with each other and ask forgiveness. This experience is profoundly healing and also preventive; I'm more likely to restrain a harsh word in July if I recall that I will have to ask this person's forgiveness again in March.
Lenten disciplines train us like athletes, strengthening our earthly bodies and souls, healing the body of believers in our local parish, and forging union with the body of Christ throughout time. "Forgetting what lies behind" and the sins of the past, we "press on" to combat those sins that lie ahead, made stronger by our Lenten disciplines, "for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13-14, ESV).
To Lead Us to Christ
While Israel's neighbors celebrated the cycle of seasons as shadows of the realm of the gods, Israel celebrated the interventions of God in historical events of judgment and deliverance. The major feasts include Passover, Firstfruits (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). In commanding these feasts, God was incorporating them into his unfolding drama, anchored in his promises and their future fulfillment in Christ.
Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar. Furthermore, Lent became associated in the medieval church with all sorts of rules and superstitions. For the most part, the Protestant Reformers continued to celebrate Lent, but in a more evangelical way. They inveighed against the connection between fasting and penance "as a work of merit or a form of divine worship," as Calvin put it. Lent is still celebrated today in Lutheran, Anglican, and many Reformed churches.
However, many of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians went further, arguing that such observances fostered superstition, constrained the conscience where God had left it free, and undermined the Christian Sabbath as God's appointed holy day. (At the same time, the Puritans did call for special days of thanksgiving and fasting, by order of Parliament!)
In my view, these special days are valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity. To be sure, every Lord's Day is a celebration of Christ's saving work. Paul seems to have allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts, but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence.
I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ's person and work.
Lent is a 40-day preparation for the observance of Christ's passion and Easter. It gives us an annual opportunity to trace the history of redemption. We learn that the number 40 is associated with a trial, a preparation, even an ordeal that leads either to blessing or curse in the stories of Noah, Moses, and Jonah. Recapitulating Adam's trial and Israel's 40 years of testing, Jesus was taken by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, fasting instead of following Adam and the wilderness generation of Israelites in demanding the food they craved (Matt. 4:1-4). Resisting Satan's temptation with God's Word, Jesus was the Last Adam and Faithful Israel who fulfilled the trial not only for himself but also for us, as well as bearing the curse for our covenant-breaking.
New disciples in the ancient church were instructed daily in Christian doctrine and practice for the 40 days of Lent, leading to their baptism on Easter Eve. They realized that they were quite literally wrestling with demons from their pagan heritage. Isn't our culture just as toxic? Are we really making disciples, or just superficial converts?
When unburdened by superstitious rites, Lent still holds tremendous promise if we will recover its evangelical purpose; namely, leading us and our children to Christ by his Word. Hopefully we can all agree that this goal remains the central mission of the church every Lord's Day.
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Steven R. Harmon, author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, is an associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Frederica Mathewes-Green, the author The Jesus Prayer and several other books, is founder with her husband of Baltimore's Holy Cross Orthodox Church. Michael Horton is a professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California. His most recent book is The Gospel-Driven Life.
Christianity Today has more articles on Lent, including:
Self-Examination Time | Lent reminds us that the main problem with us is not them. (April 7, 2009)
My Top 5 Resources for Lent | The best books to read before Easter. (March 25, 2009)
The Challenge of the Lenten Season | Evangelical Protestants are caught between freedom in Christ and sacred observance. (March 1, 2000)
Previous Village Green sections have discussed premarital abstinence, aid to foreign nations, technology and abortion.
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