Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Baptists, Ash Wednesday, and Lent

The title of my post would, in previous years, probably been viewed as either the beginning of a humorous piece, or else a rant against Popes, incense, and human traditions.  Neither is going to follow.

I know that recent years have brought a great interest in long-standing Christian traditions and practices that are not mandated in Scripture but have been used through ages as means of devotion to God.  Sometimes these means have taken on more value in the minds of many than they should have, as if using the means meant extra grace or favor with God.

Reacting against the traditionalism of Rome, some Protestants, though not all, rejected all forms of devotion and practice, including the celebration of any seasons and holy days.  Puritans went the farthest, rejecting Advent, Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, and any references to the historic church calendar and liturgy.  Since Baptists in America grew out of the larger Puritan movement, it is no wonder that we have had a long history of opposition and ignorance toward most of the above.  I still have good Baptist pastor friends who will not acknowledge either Christmas or Easter in their pulpits or church life, as a matter of principled resistance to what they see as Roman Catholic traditionalism with trappings of old pagan celebrations.

However, as time passed, most Baptists joined other Protestants and embraced Easter and Christmas celebrations in the 1800s , and eventually added in Good Friday and Palm Sunday.  More recently, Advent has been "rediscovered" and used within our circles.  But what about Lent?

For those unfamiliar with its meanings, here is a quick primer on the season.  Lent begins today, 46 days before Easter.  While it is "officially" a 40 day season, the Western Church (Roman Catholics and Protestant denominatons) does not count the Sundays, so it always starts on a Wednesday, and ends on the day before Good Friday.  It is a 40 day season that began as a time of fasting.  The forty days symbolized the 40 years in the wilderness experienced by Israel awaiting entry to the Promised Land, and the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness, being tempted by the Devil.  At the end of those 40 days he faced the greatest temptations.  Likewise, the Church was to see itself as facing a great trial as she remembers Jesus moving through his last weeks toward the Cross.

From general fasting, Lent became a time when Christians would "give up" something as a means of expressing devotion, and seeking to focus more fully on what Christ was going to accomplish on the Cross.  Growing up as I did in a town heavily populated by Roman Catholics, I got the impression that this was just one more "duty" being imposed by a rigid Church, just like eating only fish on Fridays instead of meat.  Many of my friends saw it that way, or as a way of gaining favor to offset sins.  But now I understand that it could mean more, even if for many it didn't and doesn't.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, was often marked by going to church and having ashed put on one's forehead in the sign of a cross, to identify oneself with Christ and this special time of remembrance.  The ashes were usually from the burning of palms that had been used the previous year in Palm Sunday services.  As you may know, the day before Ash Wednesday (which began the fast) was often called "Fat Tuesday" or in French, Mardi Gras.  It would be one last time of indulgence before everyone had to fast and be good.  It was also the time for Catholics to "live it up," since they would go to confession afterwards, to be more "holy" during Lent.  So what was meant to create devotion became for many a calendar that set a special time for the opposite.  But that does not mean we should view the original ideas behind the practice as evil, does it?

Now, many are deciding to revisit this tradition.  What should we make of this?  Having just preached about principles of liberty in Romans 14, my first response is that whatever we might decide to do to honor Jesus and grow closer to him is a legitimate pursuit, as long as we remember two things.

One is that we do not pursue Jesus by any means that diminishes the Gospel.  If we believe that Lent will make us more acceptable to God, especially through self-purification, we diminish the gospel of grace.  If we think giving something up for Lent will count for something in God's economy, we are undermining the gospel of grace.  If, however, we want to draw closer to our Lord, to concentrate effort in understanding his earthly life, ministry, and suffering through a time focused more on him and involving letting go of certain things for a time, this does not diminish the Gospel, but flows from it.

The second thing to remember is that we do not judge those who see no need for what we choose to practice, and those who choose not to practice do not judge those who decide to observe a special season.  Each one is to be convinced in his own mind that this is the best way for him to seek God in this moment.

I know we have some in our Grace Family who are observing Lent (in some cases for the first time).  I pray it will be a time when the Lord Jesus becomes even more central to their days, especially as we move closer to Good Friday and Easter.  Others have no interest or desire to follow the practice, and I pray that the very same will be true--that Christ will make himself powerfully present in their lives through whatever "normal" pattern of devotion they follow.

For those who would like to consider this issue, the following are some resources I have become aware of:

Ann Voskamp has, on her blog, a free devotional, and also some thoughts about Lenten observance.

Desiring God Ministries has a devotional for Lent from Noel Piper that begins here.

A cautionary note about Lent for Baptists is given by Kevin Mungors here.  He follows counsel from Roger Olson that worries about how we might easily fall into past abuses of this and other spiritual practices that are not commanded in Scripture.

UPDATE: I was just made aware of this guide from the Gospel Coalition.

"Let each be convinced in his own mind."