More so than in past years, I’ve noticed more questions from my fellow Protestants about why we would or even should observe Lent. That, of course, ties into a larger question of how and why we observe a liturgical calendar at all. And yes, even the people who just shuddered at the term “liturgical calendar” most likely follow one: Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving (unless you aren’t thanking anyone in particular) are all feasts in your liturgical calendar.
First, a tiny primer of Lent. Lent is the 40 day season of fasting (minus Sundays) recalling Christ’s sacrifice for us and preparing our hearts for Easter. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, was February 22 and Easter is April 8. Why aren’t Sundays included in Lent? Because every Sunday is a “Resurrection Sunday” and we always feast and celebrate our risen Lord, so Sunday is never a fast day.
But why don’t more Protestants observe Lent? Part of it comes from a distrust of “meaningless traditions” and the desire not to add anything to what God requires. I agree that we should always be making sure our form doesn’t get in the way of our substance. Unfortunately in pursuing the very good goal of Christ Alone, we’ve thrown out many good and beneficial tools that point us to Christ and strengthen our faith.
Traditions are some of these tools that help us remember God’s goodness to us and to reinforce His truth. Sort of like an ongoing catechization. (Is too a word. Or is now a word.) Nobody has no traditions. Which is not technically a sentence with a double negative, but still convoluted. So rather: Everyone has at least some traditions. Do you celebrate birthdays? Anniversaries? Mother’s Day? Arbor Day? Traditions. What about treasured possessions: wedding rings, baby books, and “my first” anything? Traditions. One of our family traditions is having chocolate chip pancakes on Saturdays. Even something as simple as breakfast can become a tradition that helps draw our family together.
Throughout the Bible, anytime God did something for his people, they’d build an altar so that they would remember. Why did he do this? I mean He parted the Red Sea and held back the waters of the Jordan? Who would forget that?
Well, we would! This is what we are:
If the Israelites needed reminders, how much more do we need them in our over-stimulated, multi-tasking culture? Celebrating birthdays isn’t about cake. Well, it’s not all about cake. It’s telling someone we care about that they’re important. Traditions are a way we remember and elevate the important things of life.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humans are amphibians – half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.” This explains why attempts to merely “think” or “feel” ourselves into some preferred spiritual state are destined to fail. We need actions and behaviors to pull our bodies along our spiritual walk. And we also need the rhythms of seasonal change.
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Just as we can’t always be fasting, we can’t always be feasting. Many of us feel relief when the Christmas tree comes down, the decorations are put away, and we get back to “normal life.” And I love Christmas, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Feast of Epiphany. The year is marked by seasons so that every year we get not just a new spring, but a renewed spring. Annual traditions remind us what God has done and what he will continually do for us. His mercies are both new and renewed.
“Of course! That’s why we celebrate Easter,” you counter. “Why do we need Lent and all that icky fasting?” Particularly in this culture, we seem more than willing to celebrate any feast we can: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Groundhog Day — a.k.a. the celebration of sausage. Give us an excuse to party, and we are so there. That’s why many of us had pancakes or King Cake or copious amounts of alcohol on Mardi Gras, but we have no intention of observing Lent.
The Lord ordains fasts as well as feasts, and fasting and feasting are two sides of the same coin. The fast makes the feast sweeter, the feast makes the fast more meaningful. It’s something we miss in our fast-paced, get it now, do it now, instant gratification culture: the joy of anticipation and the pleasure of a feast well earned. In some ways, the cycle of feasting and fasting points to the greater truth that our life on earth is something of a fast in preparation for the eternal Feast with our King.
The Lenten Season is most notably known as a fasting season. The idea of any fast is to put away worldly things and making our flesh conform to the things of the Spirit. Traditionally, that means abstaining from some or all food. Nothing brings into sharp relief the strength of our flesh quite like denying it food. But you can abstain from all sorts of things in order that you draw close to God. Some people seem to give up sweets or social media or whatever as a Spartan act of denial or self-improvement exercise. However, the biblical purpose of a fast is to draw near to God, which is why you’ll often find the phrase “prayer and fasting” throughout the Bible and other Christian literature.
And now for true confessions from April. I’m not currently fasting anything this Lenten season, at least not yet. I did give up almost all sugar, but that was for health reasons. So that’s not a fast; it’s just my own version of self-torture. (Girl Scout Cookies just came in. Samoas!!! Frozen Thin Mints!!!!) My pastor in Virginia had this wonderful schedule where we’d fast something for a week and dedicated ourselves to a virtue (which he called fasting from and fasting to) for the six weeks of Lent. For example, we’d fast from social media and fast to hospitality. I may do that. Or not. Who knows!
Even though I’m not fasting, our family is observing Lent through a Lenten Tree. You can even celebrate a Lenten season that isn’t the full 40 days of Lent. Noel Piper has a wonderful book called Treasuring God In Our Traditions that has many great ideas for all sorts of traditions, including Easter and Lent. Bonus: it’s a free download from Desiring God! Yeah, buddy!
These are only a couple of ideas for marking Lent. A quick google search of Lenten Devotions brings up enough resources to fulfill your wildest devotional desire. I hope you find some way of marking the season that draws you closer to Jesus. Even though Lent has already “officially” started, there is still plenty of time to mark the season. Even if you only concentrate on Holy Week, I think you’ll find it makes Easter Sunday more joyous.
My point of this excessively lengthy post is that the Lenten Season is a very wonderful and useful tradition. Beyond just advocating for observing Lent (which I do), I encourage you to look into your traditions. Good traditions of both the fast and feast persuasion are useful tools in our sanctification. Of course, there are those traditions that are neither good nor useful. But that’s another post.