Lent

You probably noticed the bulletins changed colors again. That is not an attempt to be stylish or even to mix things up. Rather, it reflects the changing of the church calendar. Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the day when millions of Christians attended church and were reminded of their mortality — the dust that marks their foreheads reminding them that they, too, are dust and that it will be to dust that they will return (Gen. 3:19). More importantly, though, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the 40-day season called Lent. Actually, it’s really not 40 days but 46. Don’t believe me? Go to the calendar and count. Begin with Ash Wednesday and end with the day before Easter. It’s 46. Why all this talk about 40 days then? Go back to the calendar and count the Sundays of Lent. Begin with the first one after Ash Wednesday and end with the one before Easter, Palm Sunday. How many Sundays? Six. Those six Sundays make the total days of Lent 46 days and not 40. Why, then, do we commonly refer to Lent as lasting 40 days? Because it does. The six Sundays don’t actually count. How is that? It all makes perfect sense when we remember that Sunday is never a fast day. Never. Not even during Lent! Sundays are feast days — spiritually and physically. Sunday is the day of celebration. Sunday is the day we dine with the king. Because of this the six Sundays aren’t counted as fast days and thus the number becomes 40 and not 46.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to see the almost complete reversal from ancient spirituality and that of today. For many Christians I meet Sunday is their fast day. They abstain from all sorts of things that they ordinarily would indulge in. I had one person tell me that they never drink alcohol on the Lord’s day. All other days are fine. But not the Lord’s day. For this person the Lord’s day was viewed as a day of fasting. I think that is more common than we might realize. Not so for ancient Christians and formulators of the calendar, though. For them Sunday was the Lord’s day — a day of rich feasting indeed.

As it has already been hinted at, Lent is a time of repentance and preparation for Easter. From what we can discern from history it looks like Lent originally began as a time of preparation for catechumens to prepare for baptism — which historically took place on Easter Sunday for new converts. It seems that the time was originally three weeks and then grew into the 40 — 46 counting the Sundays – we currently observe, which, there can be little doubt, was based on the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness (Mk. 1:13). From there it seems it grew to include those already in the faith, as time of repentance for things general and specific. Additionally, the backslidden, excommunicated, and those outside of fellowship with Christ and his church were also invited to join during this time in repentance in preparation to begin anew their journey with Christ.

Following Jesus’ example, Lent, as it has already been hinted at, is a time of fasting. A time to give things up. A time to make changes. A time to start new disciplines and habits and recover old ones that have been lost.

I know some folks are uneasy about Lent. Some of my closest friends and colleagues don’t think that reformed Christians should have anything to do with it whatsoever. But my response is three-fold. Number one: There is a difference between should and can when it comes to Christian practice and theological vernacular. The Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes this distinction when it notes on the chapter concerning worship:

The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments            instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner (WCF 21.5).

Notice the connection with fasting and seasons. It’s been recognized by interpreters of the confession the divines (writers of the confession) had in mind the seasons of the church calendar. Number two: The church calendar is not a restaurant menu. That is, there are not a la carte items. You can’t pick and choose your favorites and leave the others out. You can’t have Easter without Lent. You can’t have Christmas without Advent. Like the five points of Calvinism, they all go together. In the church you eat what you have been served — all of it. Number three: the discipline of fasting — which is at the heart of Lent — isn’t something that we should be worried is going to lead someone astray. It’s an important discipline to be cultivated in the Christian life.