I want to try and tackle something in this post that I’ve never really given much thought to. That is the issue, or rather celebration of, Lent. And with it being Ash Wednesday and all, I suppose its a good time to do so.
Growing up in the Baptist circles that I did, the practice of Lent was never really considered with any great deal of thought, except to acknowledge that other denominations were celebrating this strange religious ceremony where they rubbed ashes on their foreheads and did other weird things like that. To my young Baptist mind, it all appeared very strange, maybe even cult-like. But now as I think through these kinds of issues, I’m giving the whole idea of Lent another look.
Generally speaking, Lent is practiced predominantly in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles, but in some circles, especially in some of the emerging church groups, the practice is becoming more and more popular. In general, the practice of Lent is supposed to be a time of “self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter” (1). The forty days of Lent are meant to be a reminder of the forty days that Christ spent in the desert being tempted by Satan. They lead into the Easter season, with the Passion Week concluding the time of Lent. Depending on which tradition is held to, some denominations hold that Christ also spent a total of 40 hours in the tomb after his death, another reason for the 40 day fast. Either way, the generally accepted practice is to either give up something for the duration of Lent to focus on the sufferings of Christ, or to add into your life opportunities or times where you are selfless in service and action.
I was surprised to find that the idea and practice of Lent dated back to the Council of Nicea, the same council that gave us the basic tenants of the faith that most Christians will agree compromise the necessities of Christian faith. I always kind of assumed that a practice such as Lent, which the church and denomination I attended did not practice, was one of the rituals that Catholic churches thought up. You know, kind of like the indulgences in the middle ages and things like that? The kind of negative, un-Scriptural practices that are the basis for why Catholics are “evil.” But if the practice of Lent goes back in the early first century, I think Lent deserves a little more thought that to just be discarded as un-Scriptural.
While there is no specific biblical basis for the specific practice of Lent, the whole idea of fasting is very biblical. I’m still trying to understand exactly what it is that many Protestant denominations have against the practice itself. The only thing I can really come up with is that it dates back to the Reformation, during which the Protestants sought to rid the Church of all influences of Catholic doctrine and practice, and in doing so, did away with many of the feasts and celebrations that went along with Catholicism. Some Christians say that the practice of applying an ashen cross on the forehead of believers on Ash Wednesday is “of pagan origin” and should be avoided (2). I’m no expert on pagan rituals or anything, so I can’t really say that its true or not, but if you’re going to argue that we shouldn’t celebrate something because it has ties to pagan rituals, then Christmas should not be celebrated in its present form (3). So the argument about the pagan ritual doesn’t really hold up too much.
All in all, I’d say that the primary reason it hasn’t been celebrated much by Protestant circles is due more because of tradition than anything else. And since its not really a biblical mandate or anything, I can’t really say that its something that should be practiced more. I see nothing wrong in making a commitment during a set period in which you will focus more on the sacrificial aspect of piety. The only thing that I would have a problem with is individuals going through the season of Lent for the sole purpose that it was established by a Church authority and it is expected of proper followers. Unfortunately, I think that this is how many people end up observing Lent – merely doing it because its expected. However, I see no reason why anyone should not practice Lent, as long as it is done in the right spirit.
Personally, I’m not sure if I’ll give up anything for Lent (which probably means I won’t) but I’m still thinking through it. Either way, Happy Ash Wednesday (if you’re supposed to wish a “happy” Ash Wednesday)
(Edit: I came across an interesting blog talking about this same kind of topic. Check it out here)