Lenten practice and devotions still seem to light the torchpaper with some Protestants.
Occasionally, this blog receives questions or comments on the subject, although — thankfully — not many. I received a few a couple of years ago and two this year.
Elsewhere in the Christian ether, some Catholics are jettisoning the fast whilst some Protestants are adopting certain aspects of self-denial. Sometimes a discussion about Lent expands to one concerning denominational differences.
Below are jottings about Lent and denominational practice. This is not intended as a full exploration of the subject. Rather, what follows is a sampling of what I have read since Ash Wednesday this year. Emphases mine below.
Freedom in Christ
No Christian is under a biblical obligation to observe Lent, just as no Christian is under any scriptural diktat to abstain from meat, alcohol or tobacco. However, if any of these are causing problems in one’s spiritual or everyday life, then it is time to look at one’s ‘idols’.
Why Lenten fasts fail
I recently read a Catholic posting on a private site in which a young woman said she was determined to complete her Lenten fast in the best way possible. She and her closest friends viewed it as an endurance test, a marathon of sorts.
By the time Holy Week arrived, she was in the home straight, thrilled about the approach of Easter as a day of feasting. And feast she did. Unfortunately, her body, which had readjusted from deprivation, reacted and she became quite ill for the next day or two.
From that she concluded that fasting does not work.
Yet, the success of fasting — or other Lenten disciplines, for that matter — all depends on what one’s motivation is. If the objective is simply quasi-secular self-denial, then one does not expressly need Lent in order to do that. One’s own willpower is not truly part of Lent; it requires God’s grace and much prayer.
The confusion with the usual Catholic approach to Lent is one of merit; I remember this from my own childhood and adolescence in that church. The general outlook was, ‘If you’re self-disciplined enough, you’ll do it.’ If you do not, you’re spiritually weak.
This merit-based approach promotes semi-Pelagianism and ignores that whatever we do is thanks to the grace of God. When Christ went into the desert for 40 days, He prayed to His Father — a lot. Too many of us have separated prayer from our personal Lenten fast or other material sacrifice during these 40 days. Doing so leads only to failure or an empty accomplishment: ‘I fasted throughout Lent — I did this’.
In reality, it is God through Christ’s intercession, who works through us accomplishing every good deed. Our own ‘works’ are as filthy rags, which the prophet meant as ‘used menstrual cloths’ (Isaiah 64:6):
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
I had never run across that verse until a few years ago before starting this blog, but at that time I hadn’t read the whole Bible. I suspect many Catholics don’t know the verse, either. That isn’t a criticism of them but of the Church in general. However, that is another topic. Let it also be said that millions of Catholics do observe Lent with a profound faith in and dependence on the Gospel of grace.
Lent as a step in sanctification
It is only by incorporating the Holy Trinity into our Lenten practice that we are able to truly become holier people.
Some will view this as legalism, which is why it is important to re-emphasise that it is up to the individual whether to observe Lent. This goes back to the freedom believers have in Christ.
Many of us try, with His grace, to build on Lenten disciplines so that they become part of our daily lives. Each year brings a new private step along that road, some of which are more successful than others. Some years I set out with one goal in mind and the Lord replaces mine with His.
However, we cannot grow closer to Him unless we pray for grace and call upon the Holy Spirit for better use of wisdom, discernment, fortitude and His many other gifts.
Church history and Lent
As I wrote three years ago, the Sundays before the period we now observe as Lent had a special significance. They signalled the period of fasting. This is because early Christians were already fasting four days out of seven, which must have been difficult with so much manual and menial work at that time.
Septuagesima Sunday — despite the Latin connotation of ‘seventieth’ — occurred 63 days before Easter.
Early Christians began observing Lent the day after Septuagesima Sunday. This is because Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays were not days of fasting in the early Church. So, if the faithful wished to fast for 40 days before Easter, following the example of Jesus, they would have had to start the Monday after Septuagesima Sunday. Today, only Sunday is a non-fast day, which is why Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
One week after Septuagesima Sunday was Sexagesima Sunday (today’s banal sounding Second Sunday before Lent). Early Christians by this time had been fasting seven days out of seven for one week. The Eastern Orthodox began their fasts on Sexagesima Sunday and some of their churches still call it Dominica Carnisprivii (No Meat Sunday, literally ‘Sunday Meat Deprived’).
Practical historical considerations and Carnival
Centuries ago, as Lent approached, flour from the previous year was near its expiry date, so to speak. Similarly, eggs, milk and meat fat (e.g. lard) would also have to be eaten or discarded before the fast. No household threw out food. Therefore, the European custom prior to Lent was to use up these foodstuffs.
It was also the Christian custom to go to Confession before Lent, to be ‘shriven’ (confessed) of one’s sins. Hence, the expression Shrove Tuesday. In England, this originated as an official practice in 1000 AD with Abbot Aelfric:
In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance].
Shrove Tuesday was the last day to use up old flour and meat products before Ash Wednesday. It was also the last time to have a bit of merriment — taken too far in our day in revelry and syncretism — before a season of abstinence:
This day of last possible opportunity had different names. For French-speaking countries, it was Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras. Germans had the same name, as fetter Dienstag. Depending on where you lived, that pre-Lent time ranged far beyond the immediate Tuesday, and sometimes extended for weeks beforehand.
Then as now, Mardi Gras and Shrovetide were times for partying, merrymaking, sports, and carnival, before the season of renunciation and fasting began in earnest.
Opinion is still divided as to whether Carnival evolved from pagan practices which were widespread in many cultures.
In any event, the word derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘farewell, meat’. In England, the word valete is still used occasionally in formal academic announcements (parodied in the satirical magazine Private Eye); valete is the plural of vale and is used when bidding farewell to more than one person or thing.
Ramadan emerged from Lent
Many people think that Ramadan is its own tradition. Yet, it comes from Lent. Consider that Islam began six centuries after Christianity. By that time, Lent was well established in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
A post at Paleos describes what the earliest Muslims would have seen and borrowed from their Christian contemporaries:
To see just what Lent meant in earlier times – between about 500 and 1600 – we can also look at some ancient churches around the world, like in Christian Ethiopia: “This fast follows the old law, for they do not eat at midday, and when the sun is setting they go to church and confess and communicate and then go to supper.” Even when allowed to eat, “they eat nothing that has suffered death, nor milk, nor cheese, nor eggs, nor butter, nor honey, nor drink wine. Thus during the fast days they eat only bread of millet, wheat and pulse, all mixed together, spinach and herbs cooked with oil.” A Western observer noted that “The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the primitive church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset.” They kept that up for forty tough days.
In medieval times, European Christians also behaved rather like that. In fact, some accounts suggest that, especially in Holy Week, Christians were expected to get by on two or three meals in the entire week, never mind in any given day.
Unlike Lent, Ramadan is mandatory — even on the part of Christians who happen to either work with Muslims in Islamic countries or — as has happened in the United States — attend state school with Muslims.
Lent a source of Protestant contention
Dr R Scott Clark of Heidelblog recently hosted a lively comments section between Reformed and Lutheran churchmen following his post ‘On Good Intentions, Spiritual Disciplines and Christian Freedom’.
Clark begins with an episode in Zwingli’s Zurich during Lent in 1522. Zwingli said that the New Testament gave the local populace the freedom to observe Lent — or not:
In a word, if you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meat, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.
Clark’s concern is a recent Evangelical interest in Lent. He rightly says that, as they have no Church history of their own, they tend to latch on to traditions without fully knowing the reasons behind them. He adds that this interest in Lent is now extending to Reformed church members and clergy, which stores up challenges for the future:
When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.
He explains the perspective of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches:
The history of the church tells us that the road to spiritual bondage is paved with good intentions. We don’t need a church calendar beyond the Christian sabbath. We’re called daily to die to self and live to Christ. We don’t know when the Lord Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary but we do know that he was. We know he was crucified, dead, buried, raised, and ascended but we have no example of special services to remember those events in the apostolic church. The Mosaic church had an extensive church calendar (“new moons and sabbaths”) but that was fulfilled by Christ and has been abrogated. The creational sabbath has been transformed by the inauguration of the new creation in the resurrection and thus we see the apostolic church gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day or the first day of the week. We don’t have any food laws because the dietary restrictions have all been fulfilled in Christ. We may not call unclean what God has called clean. The dividing wall has been torn down. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male, female, slave, or free. The 613 commandments are done. The moral law stands. The gospel stands.
The Reformed reformation of Christian worship was not the act of a collective kill-joy. It was an act of purification and a re-assertion of Christian liberty. That’s why the Reformed churches distinguished between elements of worship (Word and prayer) and circumstances (e.g., time, place, and language). The Word (read, preached, and visible in the sacraments) is God’s Word and prayer (said and sung using his Word) is our divinely authorized response. The elements are inviolable. The circumstances are mutable because they are morally indifferent. We have no moral stake in the time of the services but we have everything at stake in whether worship is conducted according to the express revealed will of God.
A few Lutherans commented. Steve Martin (not the comedian), wrote:
Lutherans don’t have to observe Lent, or use the Christian calendar, or do a lot of other things. But we do because we find them helpful.
When we use Lent, or vestments, or candles, or stained glass windows, etc., we don’t make them objects of worship. We use them to help keep us anchored in Him…and tied to the great cloud of witnesses that have worshipped that way before us.
Any time I read “that’s what the Reformation was about” I get a little nervous, and suspect I’ve just been fed an ideology of some kind. I disagree that we’re left searching for some Aristotelian middle between revivalism and ritualism. Since our mass settings predate revivalism and all…
Nicholas on the Reformed practice of ‘Psalms only’ and no musical instruments in church (Exodus 20:4-6, Deuteronomy 12:32, Matthew 15):
There is no basis in Scripture or history for the so-called “regulative principle.” Why don’t we ask those living in Calvin’s Geneva or the Massachusetts Bay Colony how much “Christian freedom” was allotted to them. Please don’t try to hijack the Reformation.
Thank God I’m a Lutheran.
Dr Clark makes it clear that his concern is more for keeping to what Reformed (Calvinist) churches believe as taken from Scripture.
He and all his readers are to be commended for the most civil and courteous exchange on denominational differences that I’ve ever read.
However, it still goes to show that Lent is a lightning rod for Christians, whatever church they attend.