Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ashes, Ashes...

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday. Ashes that are from the palms used the previous Palm Sunday are used to mark the observant on this day. My friend Arby up at the Presbyterian Church in Clifton invited me (perhaps a bit tongue in cheek) to come up and receive "the imposition of ashes" today. I don't think I'll make it. But I know that many of us who did not grow up with Lent wonder what it's about, or whether we should be observing it (I don't say "celebrate," because it is a fast, not a feast, and meant to be a time of self-denial). If you grew up, like I did in my elementary years, in a predominately Roman Catholic town, you may have seen people with ashes smudged on their foreheads, and heard people talk about what they were "giving up" for Lent--it could have been a significant fast-type sacrifice (no meat other than fish was not uncommon), or it could have been much less ("no chocolate," "no TV," and "no booze" were three I remember hearing from people).

Why observe Lent? Or why not? While thought of as belonging to the more liturgical traditions, more evangelicals are choosing to use Lent as a part of their church calendar--some use it only "devotionally" (with a focus on the end of Christ's earthly ministry) while others include the self-denial/fasting aspects as a means of focusing one's thoughts and heart on the upcoming remembrance of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ.

Where did Lent come from? According to Irenaeus and Tertullian (church fathers from the later 2nd century) there was fasting before Easter for periods from one day to forty hours (believed to be the amount to time Christ was in the tomb). This Easter fasting grew to include the whole of the week from Palm Sunday (often called Holy Week) and after the Council of Nicea, a growing trend took hold to extend the fasting out 40 days before Easter (there were variations over time and geography, but often modeled after various 40 day fasts in the Bible, including that of Jesus in the wilderness). It was also common to fast before one's baptism, and Easter was a popular day for being baptized, so that also may have figured in to the observance. By the end of the first millennium after Christ, all Christians observed Lent. Only in the Reformation did the issue begin to be re-examined, as questions of church traditions were examined in light of Scripture.

Luther and Calvin both saw Lent as something that could be used well when it sprang from a heart of gratitude toward God, when it was not practiced superstitiously as a "work" to earn God's favor, and when it was following the Lord's example of fasting for spiritual purposes. Zwingli felt the same, but is noted for supporting those in his congregation who chose not to fast (exercising Christian freedom) in an environment where everyone fasted out of a sense of obligation and under what was then church law.

As Reformers of a more radical bent came along, practices that were not explicitly spelled out in the Bible came to be rejected. For these later Reformers (including English Puritans and early Baptists) all church feasts and fasts were seen as unnecessary and superstitious, and were eliminated (including Christmas and Easter celebrations). Only Sunday as "the Lord's Day" and church ordinances/sacraments were kept. Even the church's liturgical calendar, that had guided regular readings of Scripture in all churches, was widely abandoned.

Over time, however, many Protestants who came from such radical roots began to moderate their objections over these once-rejected "Romanist trappings." The use of Christmas and Easter as both celebrations and witnesses to gospel truth became accepted and now preferred. Advent (the season of preparation for Christmas) has had a resurgence, as has the use of various church calendar holidays (Pentecost Sunday for example). And even Lent has made a comeback among those among whom it was once mocked.

As one who has a great appreciation of church history, I welcome a closer examination of ancient practices that many used for spiritual edification and growth. There were some important reasons why the early church encouraged fasts and feasts, and why they took seriously the need for both self-discipline and corporate expressions of devotion. Our contemporary approaches to spiritual growth could benefit from both as well. However, I also know that there were some incorrect ideas that show themselves early in church history (like all the confusion over who should be baptized and how) that reminds me that old errors are still errors, and many things that are "ancient" in their origins were rejected for a reason.

My conclusion? If something can be Gospel centered, Christ exalting, biblically faithful and informed, and profitably used, then whether ancient or contemporary, it is available to us for personal or corporate edification. But here I would also agree with the earlier Reformers that either banning or legislating such things would be unwise and might strike at the heart of Christian freedom.

So, if you choose to use Lent as a personal time of reminder and reflection in preparation of celebrating Christ's resurrection--may the risen Lord bless you in it. Today is the day to get started! And if your church does this as a corporate experience, may your congregation be strengthened together in your faith and devotion to Jesus. And if, like me, you (and your church) do not observe it, may each day still be a day when the risen Christ's life and power are your focus and your strength.