Lutheran pastor, the Revd Joseph Abrahamson, recently wrote a post for Steadfast Lutherans on the history of Lent, ‘Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday and Lent’.

Excerpts follow — please be sure to read Pastor Abrahamson’s well-researched post in full. Emphases mine below.

First, Abrahamson takes issue with those, past and present, who paint Lent as a pagan tradition. This started in the 19th century with the Free Church of Scotland minister Alexander Hislop‘s book The Two Babylons and, perhaps paradoxically, continues today with New Age followers:

There are two aspects of Ash Wednesday and Lent that need to be emphasized. First is the historical nature of the forty days of Lent; the second is the use of ash on Ash Wednesday.

To put it plainly: the claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are based on pagan origins is a relatively new fiction that comes out of several different sources.

First is the irresponsible work of Alexander Hislop and those who followed him; both those who claim to be Christian and those who oppose Christianity.

Second is the neo-pagan movement today that falsely imagines that paganism is the most ancient of religions and rejects the Bible totally. But, in fact, Lent and Ash Wednesday have no origins in paganism.

You will find all kinds of websites on the Internet that claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not Biblical because Christ never commanded them.

In part this is true. And Satan likes to use truth to give credibility to his lies.

Abrahamson explains:

The false logic is this: If Christ didn’t specifically command us to do something, then it is a sin to do it. So, think about how little sense that logic makes. Take this example: Christ did not command that I have my children wash dishes. Is it therefore a sin to have them do so? No.

That said:

No human can require a Christian to use the fast of Lent as a saving work. A congregation can recommend the practice as a serious self-examination of one’s own sin and sinful appetites; of one’s own weaknesses. No human can require Christians to use ash on Ash Wednesday or any other day as a way of proving their faith.

And neither can any human forbid the use of the Lenten fast or the use of ashes either. Both are legalism, a replacing of the Gospel for a new law.

Abrahamson tells us that Lenten observance began with St Athanasius — of the Athanasian creed. The bishop — from Alexandria, Egypt — also led at the Council of Nicaea in a condemnation of the heresy of Arianism. Athanasius encouraged his congregations to observe Lent; documentation from 331 and 340 AD affirms this.

Abrahamson continues:

We learn from this that even at the time the Nicene Creed was written, at the time Constantine the Great ruled, the Western and Eastern Churches practiced a voluntary fast for 40 days before Easter.

As for Hislop,

The 40 day fast does not come from the so-called “weeping of Tammuz” as claimed by the radical anti-Roman Catholic writer Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons. Hislop made up myths and connections out of thin air because of his hatred for Roman Catholicism. Hislop’s views were adopted whole cloth by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who continued to republish Hislop’s book until 1987. Hislop’s book was cited in 22 different issues of the Jehovah’s Witnesses periodical The Watchtower from 1950 to 1978, and several times in the 1980s. From 1989 the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped referring to Hislop’s book, but they have kept Hislop’s teaching and use other sources.

Two basic facts: 1) The weeping for Tammuz was not a 40 day thing. That is Hislop’s fiction. 2) The month of Tammuz is 4 months after Easter. They aren’t even in the same time of year. ( From the The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature: Inana and Bilulu: an ulila to Inana: c.1.4.4 English Translation)

The pastor examines the many references in the Old Testament to wearing sackcloth and/or ashes as a form of penitence, among them 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8. He cites and explains several more.

Abrahamson makes an important point:

The ash on the forehead is a confession that the person is worth only ashes, has no righteousness, is not better than another, and needs God’s grace if there is to be any hope for him or her.

Can the symbol be abused? Yes, of course it can. But that does not make it a bad symbol. Every gift of God can be abused by sinful people. We should expect that because of sin.

However, the goal of the penitent in observing Lent concerns his awareness as being one in desperate need of God’s grace and Christ’s redemption.

And, no, regardless of what past Wee Frees or New Age pagans have written, Lent is purely Christian.