Today is Ash Wednesday. Today begins the season of Lent. From Bible history, ashes are symbolic of grief and repentance. (2 Samuel 13:19; Nehemiah 9:1; Isaiah 44:29)
Ashes also remind us that “from dust we came, to dust we go. Dust – that ever-present and bothersome gritty waste that serves no purpose, it seems, than to muck up our furniture and floors. I came from dust, I constantly clean away the dust, and one day I will return to dust. Yet in union with Christ, from the ashes we rise and are redeemed.
Admittedly, I didn't grow up in a church culture that stressed the importance and origins of Lent. Truthfully, and I don't mean for this to sound inappropriate or sacrilegious, as a 9 year old...I really did think people were referring to something that accumulated in their belly button. Obviously, it wasn't part of my Baptist-rooted rhythms.
When people told me about how they were participating in lent in high school & college, they chose to abstain from things like sweets, soda, hard liquor, and sex. Admirable stuff (hint of sarcasm..). It might’ve made a difference in my life to investigate Lent a little bit more if I knew they grew from not only giving something up, but watching their prayer & devotion life grow. Or maybe if they went to a local church during that period, or perhaps Catholic mass. But to my knowledge, that was not what happened. It was a trade off of some kind. Or as some Muslim friends of mine suggested, “it’s the Christian version of Ramadan.”
Since those days, I HAVE met people who kept Lent diligently with good reasons and good motives. And my perspective has changed slightly.
So what is Lent?
It's part of the Liturgical calendar and leads up to Easter. The Church Calendar is designed to keep our lives connected week by week to the life of Jesus. It’s origin was to intentionally carve out a time in our lives to prepare our hearts for the sacrifice of Jesus.
Barry Corey of Biola University describes it this way, "The season of Lent invites Christ followers into a sacred space of worship and contemplation. More than just a period of abstaining from social media or sweets (or whatever else might entice you), Lent is a meaningful liturgical season of anticipating the focal point of our faith: Christ’s sacrifice for us and the hope for all his death and resurrection represents, the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world."
Walter Brueggemann comments, "the church in the United States must now face hard decisions such as we have not faced for a long time. We have indeed bought in as individual persons, even as a church, on consumerism, aimed at self-indulgence, comfort, security, and safety. We live our lives out of our affluence, and we discover that all our self-indulgence makes us satiated (bloated, stuffed) but neither happy nor safe."
So Lent can be a beautifully reflective time for us to quiet our hearts and embrace the spectacular reality of the cross, the crown and the empty tomb. It’s a time of focused prayer and simple living, pondering life in the desolate desert while also envisioning the new, abundant, and vibrant life Christ offers because he loves us so.
The Liturgical calendar is a good tool. It’s a historical and logical timeline through the year that helps the local churches reprioritize.
But the calendar itself is “man-made.” And so is Lent. We never see it described as a sacrament in the Bible along with baptism and communion (however it is replicated on the basis of Jesus' fasting for 40 days in the wilderness). But it can be a good thing and good tradition if done with the right reasons.
Tradition isn’t bad. But when we elevate those traditions above Scripture, it can become a bad thing. We have some traditions in our church. Not many, but there are a few. Inevitably, when we think we’ve discontinued a certain tradition, we just insert something else in its place. After just a couple of years, it begins to feel like a tradition. The cycle continues. And we can sometimes become so dogmatic about that new tradition, that we hold it far too tight in our grasp that we miss the meaning and significance of it. "Revival" definitely comes to mind. How my culture thinks about revival is slapping a banner over the marquee and having a guest preacher.
The issue with tradition in most cases is, how hard are we willing to fight for it? And do we engage that tradition with right and pure motives? Or are we just going through the motions of it and never pausing once to think about WHY that particular tradition even exists?!
So back to Lent.
In the 15th & 16 centuries, during the Protestant Reformation, the (Reformers) began to notice a shift in how Lent was practiced. A tradition that started well and with good intentions had became an artificial duty that supposedly earned favor and superstitious bonus points with God. This tradition essentially became an act of manipulation by the Church. This explains the Reformers strong words against Lent, and I think they are highlighting a critical point: the grace of God—not the religious practices of men—is what forgives us and transforms us.
That is something all people, even followers of Jesus, are prone to forget. So easily we think we can earn God’s favor by what we do. It’s in our nature. God will judge us as right for His Kingdom by what we can muster up in our own efforts and we are constantly tempted to rely on what we do for God, instead of relying what he has done for us in Christ.
I'm reminded of what the apostle Paul said, “These [traditions] have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).
As my old roommate (and now Pastor) Doug Ponder says, "Without focusing on the grace of God, all fasting—including Lenten fasting—is just self-made religious tradition aimed at making us feel righteous because of something we do. But it doesn't have to be that way. Believers who observe Lent should remember that their fasting does not make them more righteous than those who do not observe Lent. Similarly, believers who refrain from Lent ought to realize that not everyone who observes Lent does so believing that their efforts make them righteous in the eyes of God."
If you participate in Lent for the right reasons, I celebrate your freedom to do so! I will pray God would begin to reveal Himself to you in an incredible convicting way. If you don't participate in Lent, I celebrate your freedom to do so! And I will pray over you the same things! Whether you call it "Lent" or not, we should all be driven to our knees in repentance, confession, awe and wander of the redeeming and atoning sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!
And if you choose to partake of Lent, know that since the days of the early church, Christians have treated every Sunday as a mini-Easter celebration. Every Sunday is a day for celebrating Jesus’ victory over sin and death
So this Lenten season, whether you eat or fast, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.