I don’t believe I heard the word “Lent” until I was in college. Christmas I knew. Easter I knew, but not Lent.
I don’t remember seeing kids with ashes smeared on their foreheads in the late winter or spring even though there were plenty of Catholic kids and schools around my house. I went to a Christian Reformed day school where there was no Ash Wednesday special chapel or Lenten observation.
It was in Madison Square CRC when I was in college that I heard about Lent and first had ashes smeared on my head for “Ash Wednesday”. To me this was all cool, and new, and “spiritual” in a whole new way. My college church was apt for me in that way. In it I learned a lot about both liturgical Christians and charismatic Christians. A lot of other college students went to Madison Square for the inner city thing or the African American thing but I had gotten both of those in Paterson already. Advent, visits to a monastery, Christian meditation, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton and other stuff would follow in good time.
Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia wrote a piece this week entitled “Ash Wednesday, Picking and Choosing our Piety” which got quite a bit of attention. He noted this.
In light of this, I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything. American evangelicals are past masters at appropriating anything that catches their fancy in church history and claiming it as their own, from the ancient Fathers as the first emergents to the Old School men of Old Princeton as the precursors of the Young, Restless, and Reformed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as modern American Evangelical. Yet if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.
I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.
There’s been a fair amount of push-back on the piece.
Crisis of Authority
I’ve been reading a book on the history of American neo-evangelicals only to discover that like the foray into charismatic Christianity the exploration of Roman Catholic and Orthodox liturgy has also been common among evangelical protestants.
It was evangelicals’ sense of rudderlessness— their desire for an authority to guide them in questions of dogma, life, and worship— that led them to rediscover liturgy and history in the first place. The irony was that in their smorgasbord approach to non-Protestant tradition, in their individualistic rejection of the rules of any one church in favor of a free run of the so-called church universal, in their repudiation of American nationalism in favor of cosmopolitanism, young evangelicals were being quintessentially evangelical and stereotypically American, doing as they pleased according to no authority but their own. The principle of sola scriptura was far clearer in theory than in practice.
Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 2877-2882). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
What Worthen is saying is that even in our appropriation of charismatic or traditional liturgical we are exposing our American individualism. We craft our own religion, relationship with God and even to a degree our own god.
The paragraph that really grabbed me in Trueman’s piece was this one.
Finally, it also puzzles me that time and energy is spent each year on extolling the virtues of Lent when comparatively little is spent on extolling the virtues of the Lord’s Day. Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship. Of course, that is rather boring. Boring, that is, unless you understand the rich theology which underlies the Lord’s Day and gathered worship, and realize that every week one meets together with fellow believers to taste a little bit of heaven on earth.
Observing the Lord’s Day was something I grew up knowing very well. We didn’t go shopping on Sundays. We didn’t watch TV on Sundays until after the evening worship service. We didn’t eat out on Sunday. I remember on a family vacation once when we were traveling on a Sunday, which was unusual, when we pulled into a restaurant, presumably because we needed to eat and didn’t have any food with us. I quietly looked around thinking “What’s happening?! What will happen if we do this?”
When we camped at Fairwoods, a Christian Reformed Campground in Whitinsville MA we could bathe in the pond before church with soap, but couldn’t swim in the pond in the afternoon. We did that at my cousin’s pool.
Now there was some legalism and sophistry in this. We’d joke that the Baptists would look down on the CRC for smoking and drinking and the CRC would look down on the Baptists for going out to eat after church on Sunday, robbing those poor restaurant workers of their God-designed shalomic rest. The rules themselves, and our occasional violation of them gave us sense of vague Christian sophistication. Eventually, many of these rules would go by the wayside, seen as archaic, perhaps even legalistic vestiges of primitive ignorance. Today I’m not so sure.
Community in Liturgy
What we experienced in the Sabbath observance was a community at worship in ways not limited to the confines of the hour long formal service. What we experienced was community through pressure, sometimes welcome, sometimes not. Sometimes misguided, sometimes not.
What we see in Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities (and others), often ethnic communities, is not just some smeared ashes but fasting, prayer, additional services, traditional meals served in homes, not churches, and other traditions that have been with those communities for centuries. There will be differences between ethnic groups within these churches, but from children to elders these practices will be observed. They will sometimes be observed in a grudging fashion, sometimes joyful, sometimes rote and empty. These are the liturgies of the communal life.
The CRC in losing its Sabbatarian traditions lost something of its identity. As the CRC shed those practices it increasingly joined individualistic, self-expressive American religion. It can no longer naively “observe” as it did. If individuals or individual households maintain these traditions, they now become expressions of individual piety rather than elements of a non-selfconsciously assumed world.
The Bible Says To…
Part of what justified throwing off Sabbatarian practice was the lack of scriptural justification. It was easy recognize that Sunday wasn’t Saturday, or that literalistic application of the fourth commandment might make you suspect the Adventists got it more right. The point was, however, that the linkage between “Sabbath Observance” and CRC Sabbatarian was in fact a rather complicated theological liturgical construction. The CRC Sabbath wasn’t the simple cessation of labor among the Jews. It was an expression of the church’s vision of liturgy within community even if its linkage to the Bible was complicated. In other words, if you’re looking to blame someone for the decline in CRC Sabbatarianism you can probably point fingers at American evangelical Biblical literalism just as you can at American expressive individualism.
The Word “Lent” Isn’t In the Bible
Lent possesses a similar issue. The word “Lent” isn’t in the Bible. “Lent” isn’t even simply 40 days before Easter. Lent is supposed to be a liturgical reenactment of Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness. (Matthew 4 and Luke 4)
What’s interesting to me, is that Jesus’ time in the wilderness was itself a liturgical reenactment of the children of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. The point Jesus and the gospel writers are making is that Jesus is true Israel and will fulfill the calling of Israel.
Linkage, Reenactment, Reflection, Fulfillment
One of the toughest things for new readers of the Bible to get is how immersive and nuanced the Bible is designed to be. Communities and families are like this. There are countless insider conversations, references, jokes and jabs.
The Bible wants to make some assertions by way of proxies.
- The story of Israel is the story of the world in miniature
- The story of Jesus is the story of Israel fulfilled
When Jesus goes into the wilderness with the wild animals to fast, he is living into the desert wanderings of Israel with Moses in the book of Numbers. Most people don’t know that Israel wasn’t supposed to spend 40 years in the desert, she was only suppose to spend two there. The 40 years got tacked on as a reprieve for a death sentence for rebellion in Numbers 13 and 14. What we are seeing here is a chain.
- Lent is about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness.
- Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness was about a generation of Israel being sentenced to 40 years in the wilderness to die
- Israel spending 40 years in the wilderness until a rebellious generation would die off was about our broader rebellion in the world and what it brings us. This is true because God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt was about God’s rescue of us from what we’ve made of the world.
The Suspended Death Sentence of Numbers 13 and 14
Few people know the story of Numbers 13 and 14 and fewer appreciate how important they are. In the middle of the book of Numbers you have a sequence of rebellion stories. As I said above the stories of the Bible are designed to be linked to one another. These rebellion stories of Numbers are a way of illuminating who we are and how we refuse to be satisfied.
- Moses sends spies into the land of Canaan to do initial recon.
- The spies discover that the land is good!
- The spies also discover that the land is held by strong and fearsome peoples. The spies mythologize the inhabitants of the land and use that as justification for despair.
- Two spies, Caleb and Joshua bring in a minority report. God can take the land because he is God and larger than the mythical figures now controlling it.
- Israel, now inspired by the 10 despairing spies join in decrying the entire project and demand that they dump God and Moses, pick a new leader who will lead them back to Egypt. This is the worst rebellion since the Golden Calf incident.
- God is ready to kill Israel and tells Moses he’ll start a new, better, greater people through him.
- Moses rejects this invitation and pleads the case for the people on the basis of God’s reputation.
- God relents, but declares that none of the men, 20 years or older, will ever enter the land. They will wander in the desert for 40 years until these men die and the God will lead their children up to inherit the land.
How Does Jesus Relate to Israels Dying and Rising Desert Generation?
We are challenged here not by a paucity of relationships but with plenty.
- Israel is tested in the desert and fails repeatedly. Jesus too is tested in the desert and offered the things that Israel craved: bread for stone, fame, power. God in fact offers Israel these things and in Numbers 13 and 14 she rejects God’s offering and opts instead of Egypt’s. Jesus follows God’s cruciform path and receives it all (Phil. 2).
- Jesus embodies the dying of the old generation (fasting in the desert) and the raising up of the new, both in his body and in the church.
- Jesus willingly embraces the 40 and fulfills them.
Where Do We Stand As The Church in this Drama?
- We sometimes see ourselves in Israel. We confess that the fear, unbelief and rebellion as well as the longing for Egypt is deep in our hearts and expressed in our lives. The sojourn we have been sentenced to is one of desert wandering and loss.
- The rebellious generation that was sentenced to the desert had to spend 40 years leaning into the hope that was the promise of their children inheriting the land. They realized the promised land through their inheritance. In our desert sentence of rebellion (the age of decay) we lean into the promise of our inheritance of the life of the age to come in the resurrection. Though we die in this wilderness we have the promise of new life.
- We follow the invitation of Jesus to reenact Israel’s story but in this case embrace the cruciform path with him. Jesus takes this test for us and with us and in his triumph we receive himself as our prize.
- Our 40 days plus 6 is a time to remember our story, reenact our story, live into our story which stretches back to the rebellion in the desert and Jesus’ fulfillment of it not only in the 40 days of fasting but his death, resurrection and ascension.
Lord’s Day and Lent
In a little research on the history of the practice of Lent I found something interesting. As with many things in church history the details are fuzzy and the practices diverse. Nobody’s quite sure how the ancient practice of Lent got started nor what the rules were.
At this point, the early history of Lent becomes something of a “choose your own adventure.” The current state of research points to three possible conclusions. Because the evidence is slim and admitting of any number of plausible interpretations, one position has been to view Lent as a sui generis phenomenon—completely new and unique—that simply appears after the Council of Nicea. In this view, any attempt to hazard connections or lines of evolution from pre-Nicene fasting practices is too speculative to be of any value. Another, rather opposite, position has been to accept as historical the alleged Egyptian post-Theophany fast, to identify it as the dominant antecedent to Lent, and that Lent’s rapid dissemination throughout the Christian world is best explained in relation to the program of liturgical and theological alignment begun at Nicea. A final position, a sort of via media or middle road, acknowledges the incomplete and sometimes-contradictory nature of the evidence, but asserts nonetheless that Lent develops as an amalgamation of several early fasting customs and typologies of which the post-Theophany fast (if it existed) may have been but one of many. As with most issues in the study of the early history of the liturgy, certainty is elusive and we must be satisfied with possibilities. Judicet lector: let the reader decide.
Maybe this hodge-podgy American appropriation of the ancient tradition isn’t as nuts as it sometimes seems. Maybe Lent has always been a bit eclectic and diverse. Go ahead and fast from Facebook or chocolate or meat or screens or the Gilmore Girls. Maybe you should be really counter-cultural and fast from exercise or eating right if it upon those things that you place your trust for a long and healthy life. Whatever you do, however, do so quietly and inconspicuously if you care to hear what Jesus has to say about fasting.
Being eclectic and diverse isn’t strange given church history. Christianity’s most amazing quality in the context of the major world religion has always been its adaptability to different cultural contexts.
What I grieve, however, in our American context is the loss of the communal substance that I mostly knew through the CRC Sabbatarian tradition. My sense of loss isn’t so much simply for the practice but the realization that I can’t imagine such uniformity in practice returning for much of anything. Faith itself has become such and individual, do-it-yourself enterprise that an offering that doesn’t come attached to a menu of options is interpreted culturally as repressive or abusive. The uniformities we see (humans as communal creatures are notoriously uniform in many respects) tend to be more instinctive and born of our appetites.
The Hunger for Lent
I do see myself with Israel in the desert.
- I’m afraid of the giants in the land. Fear guides me more than trust.
- I’m doubtful of God’s intent to bless me or provide for me.
- I major in self-sufficiency. I demand proof rather than relying on trust.
- I have more faith in my plans and choices. Let ME pick a leader to take us back to Egypt. Better the securities of slavery in Egypt than the promises of God in the desert.
Jesus goes into the wilderness to hunger, to pray, to do battle with Satan. It isn’t a battle like Carmen likes to sing about. It’s a battle of quiet, self denial without the satisfaction of beating Satan with fists.
This battle will be just the first round but will climax on the cross and triumph in the empty tomb.
I need to come full circle on the Lord’s Day and on Lent. I need come from fear and law into freely choosing what is costly and generous. I long to do with with a body of believers, the church.
My little Lenten participation will be small and quiet, maybe gathering no more notice than Jesus checking out for forty days and no one quite knowing where he went. Maybe we can see Jesus fasting in the wilderness thinking of the generation that in Numbers 13 embraced faithlessness, longed for slavery and died with the hope that their children would inherit the land.
Lenten fasting is to create space for joy. Lenten fasting is to feel desire for God to fill. Lenten fasting is for faith and hope that the desert we live in will one day explode with glory and joy and that this will all be his sure gift.