Today is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of the Lenten season and the time when small wars break out around the Protestant household over whether or not the season should be a part of the Christian calendar.
Many argue (quite plausibly it seems to me) that we should learn from the calendar God established for His people under the Old Covenant, which had only one day of fasting set apart each year (and it was surrounded by numerous days of feasting). If, they say, this was the case prior to the coming of our Savior (and the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth, the days of “continual feasting”) why would we institute a season of 40 days of “fasting”? And, I think I agree — assuming that Lent is celebrated as a 40 day fast. But the question is, “Is this how Lent should be celebrated?” I don’t think so.
I know that traditionally, Christians have “given up” something for Lent and usually that “something” has been something they particularly enjoy. This may be seen as a form of “fasting” I guess, but if it is, it’s a very pale shadow of what “fast” (doing without food of any kind) really means. I understand the rationale for the practice, but given it’s very limited focus, it seems to me to miss the point of fasting in general and is easily metamorphosed into something like a “Pharisaical” act (i.e. “God surely must be pleased with me since He sees me foregoing my usual afternoon grande chocolate-caramel-cinnamon mocha latte with extra foam, which I’m absolutely dying to have right now!”).
This is — probably unintentionally, but it is all the same — a distortion of the whole purpose of fasting. We fast to remind ourselves of the seriousness of our sins. Our sins are a high-handed insult to the gracious, loving God who made us. They are so grievous that we deserve no good thing from God — indeed, we deserve to starve to death. Fasting should have the same effect upon our attitude toward sin that spanking is designed to produce in our children — i.e. it should impress upon us that sin is bad, painful, worthy of death, and that I ought to hate it and stay away from it. I’m not sure that giving up Godiva chocolate for forty days always has the same effect.
So, unless the congregation is going to engage in a corporate fast for a particular reason or you decide to set a day aside for a real fast (which means no food for 24 hours or at least until sundown), I’m not sure that these lite fasts mean a great deal — and we probably are better off without them. But that’s a different matter than saying that Lent is evil or unprofitable.
Remember that the Christian calendar is designed to follow the life and work of Jesus. So Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation, Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of the Savior to the world (the visit of the Magi, the baptism, the miracle at Cana, etc., up to the transfiguration on the mount). And Lent focuses upon the time after the transfiguration to Jesus’ death on the cross.
After the transfiguration, we are told that Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem — focusing upon the work that he had been sent to do, dying on the cross for our sins. Lent is the season that commemorates our Savior’s path to Calvary.
For us, Lent should be a time for special focus on the price the Savior paid for our salvation and a time for reviewing our own lives. Jesus calls us to a life of willing self-denial and sacrifice (“if anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”).
Lent is not a time when we pretend to be like the original disciples, following Jesus to Jerusalem. We live on the other side of the cross. We know that Jesus’ death was not merely another sad story of injustice and oppression. Rather, His death was the glorious, once-for-all payment for our redemption. His death was the beginning of Satan’s utter overthrow and the breaking of the bonds of sin and death. He died so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
So, Lent is to be a time of serious, purposeful repentance and joyful thanksgiving that the Lord has offered the one full and perfect sacrifice for our sins. Now, we may have the confidence that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness — to the end that we might walk in newness of life.
Lent is to be a special time of corporate self-examination — where we remember what our sins deserve and what they cost our Savior. It is a time when we focus upon the hatefulness and wickedness of sin and pray that the Lord increase our own hatred of all unrighteousness. And it is a time when we “improve our baptism” — praying afresh for strength to walk with joy and gladness in the ways of righteousness.
To say that such a season is unnecessary is akin to saying Winter is unnecessary. It’s like protesting the fact that some days are cloudy rather than clear or demanding a continual Springtime. Why do we have to have this time of year when the days are often dreary and dark and cold and wet? Everlasting Summer would be better, or, what about a continual harvest? Ah, now we’re talking!
Yeah, we’re talking all right, but we’re talking foolishness. Winter is a necessary preparation for Spring — and Spring is vital if we are to have something growing during the Summer and Summer is essential if we’re to have something to harvest in the Fall. All the seasons play their part. And so it is in the Christian calendar. Lent is a “winter-time” of preparation for the “spring-time” of the resurrection. Just as death leads to life, so the cross leads to glory. Lent helps us learn this lesson. It deepens our joy and love for the Savior who has given us eternal life by His willingness to die in our place.
So here’s the goal of Lent: to grow in love for the Savior and in thankfulness for His sacrificial death in our place, paying for our sins (which, remember, He did with great JOY — Heb. 12:2). Lent, properly observed, leads us to increased joy in the Lord.
And that ain’t a bad thing at all.