For Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent which ends the evening of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.

The concept of Lent offends a number of Protestants who say that every day should be considered one of repentance. Others add that this is an extra-biblical or pagan practice, something many believers have gleaned from the Free Church of Scotland minister Alexander Hislop‘s book The Two Babylons.

I explored — and refuted — those claims last year, thanks to information from a Lutheran pastor, the Revd Joseph Abrahamson, who wrote an excellent post in 2014 on the topic for Steadfast Lutherans.

In ‘Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday and Lent’ Abrahamson tells us that St Athanasius — and other doctors of the Church before him — took Lenten disciplines seriously in the earliest days of Christianity.

Pastor Abrahamson cites St Athanasius’s text from the fourth century (emphases mine below):

6. The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of Phamenoth (Mar. 1); and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 5), in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings, and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with precious blood, and to escape the destroyer4021. Let us rest then, on the fifteenth of the month Pharmuthi (Apr. 10), for on the evening of that Saturday we hear the angels’ message, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen4022.’ Immediately afterwards that great Sunday receives us, I mean on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (April 11), on which our Lord having risen, gave us peace towards our neighbours. When then we have kept the feast according to His will, let us add from that first day in the holy week, the seven weeks of Pentecost, and as we then receive the grace of the Spirit, let us at all times give thanks to the Lord; through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion, in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.

Below are excerpts from Abrahamson’s post, which sheds more light on the subject of Lenten practice.

First, legalism:

The ancient Church recognized that it was free from legalistic obligations, both from the Old Testament Law, and from new invented laws of men.  St. Paul wrote about this in Colossians 2. They also knew from Scripture that they were not to use this liberty as an excuse for sin. (Romans 6) They knew that they were not to let their consciences be bound by new human regulations as if their salvation depended upon them. (Galatians 1-2) Whatever was beneficial for the teaching of God’s word and for the practice of the Christian life-consisting of repentance and forgiveness in the Means of Grace-was encouraged.

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. The whole point of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast is to look on ourselves as worthless and utterly needy: to look only upon Christ, to celebrate His feast in the Lord’s Supper, preach His passion and death upon the cross, and proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as the final seal upon our salvation.

Secondly, the near-universal consideration of Lent as a time of penitence, fasting and prayer:

We learn from this [Athanasius’s text] 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.

That this was practiced in Rome and elsewhere is seen in St. Athanasius’ letter from the year 340 A.D. when he returns from a meeting of pastors/bishops from all around the world, and he encourages his own congregations to continue in the same practice of the 40 day Lenten fast as does “the rest of the whole world.”

Thirdly, Abrahmson gives us several scriptural references concerning the use of ashes: 2 Samuel 13:19Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6 and Luke 10:13. Therefore:

The practice of believers using ashes to represent sorrow and repentance is well testified in the Bible.

Fourthly, an explanation of how the days of Lent are calculated:

In order to count the 40 days of Lent the Sundays of that season are not counted as part of the fast. Rather the Sundays are each a minor feast day. If you add the six feast Sundays to the 40 fast days you get 46 days. That means that the first day of the Fast of Lent is a Wednesday, just as Athanasius explained.

From an Episcopalian perspective, Anne Kennedy — wife of the Revd Matt Kennedy — gave a good précis of the Episcopal / Anglican reasons for using Lent as a special time to progress in sanctification. I posted on her reflections last year. Mrs Kennedy took for her text Psalm 32, which includes these verses:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

She writes, in part:

This strikes me as a perfect entrance into a Lenten season of repentance and self examination. The gift of God’s forgiveness to the one who turns in sorrow for sin is the beginning point. It is the moment of greatest blessing. Many things come after it—love, grace, maturity, knowledge, enlightening of the heart and mind—but none of them can be had in their fullness without repentance, without turning around and walking towards God rather than away from him. And yet this beginning step is usually always the hardest, whether it is a first time repentance, or one of the many many times of contrition the Christian faces …

Certainly, we can accomplish nothing without divine grace. Therefore, we pray for more of it, particularly during this time.

It is also to be hoped that the discipline we undertake during these 40 days becomes an inherent part of us so that we may then progress to another stage of sanctification afterward.

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