Lent: One Baptist’s Perspective
[Reprint from last year]
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the start of the liturgical season of Lent on the Christian calendar. As with so many Christians, I was smudged with ashes and urged to remember that I came from dust and to dust I shall return–to remember that God is GOD and I am only human, frail, finite, sinful, in need of grace both for life and New Life.
Most Baptists do not observe Ash Wednesday or Lent, at least not in the U.S. South. The “liturgical renewal movement” among Protestants in the last 30 years has missed much of the free church segments of evangelicalism, including most Baptists. Even in my congregation some think it “too Catholic.” So, I thought I’d reflect on Lent–what it is and why I am glad to observe it.
Because the Western Medieval Church had become numb with formal ritualism (little understood) and used it to obscure the dearth of biblical literacy, the Protestant Reformation was justified, in my view, in questioning many rituals and traditions and placing new focus on Scripture and preaching. But in their zeal, they may have thrown out too much. In abandoning the church calendar (except for Christmas and Easter), as most Free Church traditions did, we allowed our lives to be shaped by the secular calendar, instead. (The worst example of this I ever encountered personally happened in a Baptist church one year when Pentecost Sunday fell on the same day as Earth Day. The pastor ignored Pentecost–had no idea it was Pentecost–and preached a good sermon on ecological stewardship. Now, I am all in favor of ecological stewardship sermons, but not at the expense of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church.)
How did the early church adopt Lent and what was its purpose? When the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal (and Theodosian made it the official religion of the Empire), suddenly there were far more Christians–with far lower levels of commitment than when Christians were persecuted. Suddenly, it was hard to tell Christians from everyone else. Lent–the 40 days prior to Easter–was instituted to help Christians remember that they were disciples of Jesus and needed to be different. The practice of fasting (later just giving up eating meat or some other food item or giving up something cherished) was to instill spiritual discipline and guide the believer’s focus on Jesus journey to the cross. Lent is to help us lead cruciform lives.
We also live in an age of empire–a new form of empire under globalized capitalism and the U.S. “empire of bases.” (The neo-cons in the Bush admin. openly admire the Roman Empire and the 19th C. British Empire and urge the U.S. to become a “benevolent empire”–something foreign to both the traditions of liberal internationalism and traditional conservatism in U.S. politics. And the Bible is an extremely anti-imperial book, of course.) To resist empire, we need to be formed in an alternative set of virtues, practices, and values. Lent is one way of helping us develop the alternative perspectives and character traits we need.
[Update: The new Obama administration is only a month old. It is obvious that it is not as pro-empire as the Bush-admin. and it seems to want to respect international law and human rights–at least more than its predecessor. But this is still an “empire of bases” and we Christians–especially U.S. Christians–still need Lent. We need to be reminded that our primary loyalty is to a transnational community–the original meaning of “ecumenical”–not to a particular nation-state.]
This year, I am helping my daughters with their Lenten disciplines. Molly (11) has chosen to give up chocolate until Easter morning, so I am forswearing chocolate with her (which I suspect will be easier for me since I am not a huge chocolate fan). Because the chocolate is not the sacrifice for me that it is for my eldest, I will also give up beef. Miriam (6) has decided to journal her daily prayers, so I am, too, even though I have not had much success at journaling. I will focus my Bible reading on Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke’s central section, 9:51-19:48) and his Passion (20:1-23:56). I will try to blog some of my reflections weekly on Fridays or Saturdays.
Update: This year I am giving up carbonated soft drinks (sodas, etc.) for Lent. I don’t yet know what my daughters are doing for Lent.
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