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Why Lent?

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. (more…)

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Fasting for the world

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

Depriving oneself unnecessarily is not commonly something that modern Americans view favorably. Why would you do it if you don’t have to? This is especially the case when we think of food. Why fast unless your doctor requires it? It’s clear, however, that our Savior viewed fasting as something His people would do until His return. He not only warned the disciples against hypocritical fasting but instructed them in the proper way to fast (Matt. 6:16-18). And we should note that this instruction comes in the context of teaching about the proper ways to give and pray. Fasting is as much an obligation for the people of God as giving or praying. Jesus assumes that it is going to be a regular part of our lives.

This is reiterated in Matthew 9 where Jesus defends His disciples against the charge of indifference to fasting by saying that there are times when fasting is inappropriate (Matt. 9:14-15). But He goes on to say that the time is coming when the disciples will have occasion to fast and in those seasons, they will do so.

This reality lies behind the season of Lent. I grew up around Roman Catholic friends who had a superstitious understanding of this season and trivialized it to such a degree that I always thought it silly at best and destructive and dangerous at worst. Lent seemed to distract you from the finished work of Christ and focus you upon a dependence on your own works. But historically, the Church was motivated to observe this season by the opposite reason. The concern was that there should be a time, at least once per year, when God’s people are called to a formal, corporate remembrance of their sins and their continual need to humble themselves before the Lord in repentance. All have sinned and thus, all deserve to die.

The season of Lent calls us to remember this sobering reality. Far from focusing upon self-atonement, it reminds us that there is no hope in us at all. Our confidence is not in our works but in the work of Jesus in our behalf. His death in our place and His resurrection; His righteousness is our only hope and the foundation of our acceptance in the sight of God. Lent focuses upon how this glorious reality ought to affect us and what it ought to produce in us. Rather than provoking pride and self-righteousness, this reality brings us down in humble acknowledgment of our disobedience and unbelief and produces in us thankful acknowledgment for all His mercies to us in Christ Jesus. And that is where fasting comes in.
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Lent?

Today is the last day of Epiphany (Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday) and tomorrow is the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday). Most Christians see no problems with celebrating Christmas and Easter and the feasts that come with these two major celebrations, Epiphany and Pentecost. It’s the times of preparation for these two major feasts (Christmas and Easter) that are questioned, Advent and Lent (and especially Lent). And it’s understandable. It seems that the only reasons we hear for observing Lent are wrong reasons (e.g., we should give up meat to honor the animals who provide so much food for us gluttonous Americans; therefore we all ought to observe Lent by eating a piece of celery and saving a cow’s life — at least for 40 more days). And if it’s not something really dumb, the reason seems to center around atoning for our sins by acts of self-denial (in some way or another). No wonder people are suspicious of Lent.

Lent is the season set aside by the Church as a time of preparation for the feast of Easter. This season lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays). In the Scripture, the number forty is the number associated with trials. Lent is a time for self-examination. It is to be a time when we recall that our sins made the sufferings and death of Jesus necessary. Thus, it is a time when we as the people of God give special attention to repentance (confessing our sins and devoting ourselves to new obedience). There are, of course, right ways and wrong ways to do this, but the emphasis is a good one.

But someone says, “So why do we need Lent to examine ourselves and repent? Aren’t we supposed to do that year round?” Of course, we should repent of our sins and seek spiritual growth at all times, not just during this season. But I could ask the same question in regard to Christmas or Easter. Why have a special season to focus upon the incarnation or the resurrection? Shouldn’t we remember the incarnation and the resurrection every day? Sure we should. But Christmas and Easter give us the opportunity to focus upon these amazing realities and celebrate them. They call us to meditate upon the glory of God becoming man and breaking the power of sin and death — and thus, they help us to remember them every day. Lent does a similar thing. It gives us a stated season, a formal structure for all of us to examine ourselves and repent of our sins as individuals and as a church. Lent underscores for us the importance of dealing with our sins so that we don’t ignore them the rest of the year. And it gives us an occasion to do this together, in communion.

Lent, therefore, is a time for focusing upon our sins, a time for asking questions about our spiritual health: What are my besetting sins, and how can I work and pray for change? What idols have captured my imagination so that my love for the living God has grown cold? In what ways is my devotion to Christ and his church less than wholehearted? The Lenten season is like an annual physical. It’s an annual checkup on the well-being of our hearts and lives. (more…)

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