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Today is Ash Wednesday. This is the beginning of the traditional Christian season of Lent and a fasting day for many liturgical Christians, and it’s becoming more of an emphasis among evangelicals and Protestants like me. I thought about doing a post today about why I observe Lent, but then I remembered I wrote that post already last year. But many of you who faithful readers are relatively new, and may not have seen it. So I’m going to re-post.
Forgive me. It’s a Lenten thing to do.
I also added links to the writers mentioned below, in case you want to read more. Because you should.
(originally posted 2/6/08)
By virtue of my background, membership, and my current church attendance (though, perhaps, not my theology), I am a Southern Baptist. Thanks to our Anabaptist heritage — which threw out anything smacking of popishness back in the 17th century — I knew nothing of the church calendar during my formative religious years. So Lent wasn’t just de-emphasized. In my church, it didn’t even exist. Easter was a big deal, and the church office was closed on Good Friday, but that was it. Ash Wednesday? Not a word. It passed by every year without notice.
I learned more of it as I hit my twenties and began to expand the boundaries of my faith. I read Catholic writers like Merton and Nouwen and Manning and Protestant writers like Yancey and Peterson and gradually I learned the significance of the Lenten season as a way to turn one’s mind toward repentance, to practice self-denial, and to prepare for Easter.
It was my little sister, though, who really got me thinking about it. She shipped off to graduate school in Syracuse and began attending more liturgical churches. (As you might expect, Southern Baptists don’t have too strong of a presence in upstate New York.) She came home one spring break and fastidiously got up every morning and made some green tea. Instead of coffee. We Boyetts are heavy coffee-drinkers, so this was news.
Micha had given up coffee for Lent. I was intrigued, and did some research. Fasting during Lent was a way to acknowledge (with great humility) the self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In observance of Lent, Christians gave up something they loved — coffee, sweets, alcoholic beverages, shopping — in order to a) practice a mild form of self-denial; b) replace it with something of benefit, like prayer or scripture reading; and c) remember Jesus and remain conscious of his death during the weeks leading up to Easter.
It sounded like a valuable spiritual practice (as opposed to being some scary works-based Catholic thing all good low-church evangelicals ought to ignore). And lately I’d been noticing how Easter kept sneaking up on me. Suddenly it was there, without warning…which never happens with Christmas. Christmas never sneaks up on us, because we begin preparing for it as soon as we get the dishes washed after the Thanksgiving meal. I realized that was the role the Lenten season played: it made me anticipate the coming of Easter, which made the celebration of the resurrection that much more meaningful. (What a dumb sentence that was. As if something I do can actually add meaning to the resurrection. But you know what I mean. I hope.)
So that year I decided to observe Lent by fasting from something I knew I would really miss: listening to my car’s radio and CD player while driving. No NPR. No sports talk radio. No music. Just silence.
Guess what I did with that time? I prayed. For my kids, my wife, for my own spiritual journey. I found some good prayers of confession that fit the Lenten season and I prayed them. Sometimes, I just enjoyed the quiet. It was nice. And that year, Easter didn’t sneak up on me. I knew when it was coming. I had been thinking about it and preparing for it for a month-and-a-half.
That’s why I observe Lent. The self-denial is good for me, obviously, but more than that, it gets me ready for Easter. It shifts my attention to Jesus, and that’s a good thing. It’s something I need. It’s something we all need, whether we’re Catholics, Episcopalians, or casserole-eating Southern Baptists.
Links: Historical background of Lent (Christianity Today)
An excellent piece at Slate.com about the growing Protestant enthusiasm for Lent.
A comprehensive overview at CRI/Voice Institute.