Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Should we observe Lent?

I wrote this last Wednesday and hoped to get it up then but unfortunately I was having problems with this and couldn't get it on here so it's a little dated now. Hope it still helps a bit. I actually went to an Ash Wednesday Mass with a friend from work. I did not participate in the Imposition of Ashes or the Eucharist of course but it was rather interesting to see and a good chance to try to get an understanding about what our Catholic friends believe to try to start conversations about the biblical doctrines of salvation. Anyway, hope that this is still somewhat helpful even though it's dated.

Should We Observe Lent?
by Matthew Pickens

In modern American Protestant and Evangelical churches we are not accustomed to following ecclesiastical calendars. However since on February 17, 2010, we see many of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers with ash on their foreheads or have conversations about what they are giving up for the next forty days I thought it would be appropriate to take some time to consider the season of Lent.

According to Roman doctrine Lent is a 40-day period that begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes at midnight Easter morning. Sundays are not counted in this period because they are meant to be times to celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Lent is especially meant to be a time of penance and discipline. The Roman Church believes that ashes commonly refer to mourning in the Old Testament and so at the beginning of Lent ashes are mixed with oil and applied to the forehead as a reminder of sinfulness and need of Christ. Lent is a 40-day period because it is meant to recall the forty days that Jesus spent in the Wilderness fasting and being tempted by the devil. So during this period it is common practice to abstain from some pleasure as a way of fasting as Jesus did.

The problem with this observance of Lent is that it becomes a way of worshipping God that is not commanded in Scripture and so is a violation of the Second Commandment. The intent of the Commandment is that God may only be worshipped as he has explicitly authorized in his Word. Our Confession says:

the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (WCF 21.1)

Scripture does not authorize the use of ashes this way in worship. While Christ fasted for forty days in the Wilderness this is not a command for us to do so; though there are some other places in Scripture where we could turn regarding fasting in general. Though there is some precedent for an annual schedule of feasts and festivals in the Old Testament there is not warrant for jumping to the specific times and seasons of Roman or Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical calendars. So I would argue that it is inappropriate to use these calendars for the public worship of God's people though there may still be some value in using it to remind ourselves of aspects of Christ's work at certain times during the year in our personal devotions (much the same way we might use a devotional book or a book of prayers like the Valley of Vision).

In this sense, what Lent does do is remind us of what Jesus accomplished for us. Matthew's account of Jesus' temptation (Matt. 4:1-11) focuses on Jesus' faithfulness contrasted with Israel's unfaithfulness. Each of the Old Testament passages that Jesus quotes to answer Satan's temptations are taken from the book of Deuteronomy (Matt. 4:4 and Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:7 and Deut. 6:16; Matt. 4:10 and Deut. 6:13). Specifically they are Moses reminding the people of how they did not trust the Lord and instead put his covenant faithfulness on trial in the Wilderness with the need for water and food. The purpose is to remind them that God has faithfully provided according to his covenant in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Jesus is faithful here where Israel fails. He believes God's promises to provide for him according to the covenant that proclaims he will reign forever on David's throne (2 Sam. 7:12-16).

Jesus' temptation in the Wilderness is recorded immediately after his baptism in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus is baptized to show that he acts as our covenant head and representative. When he is faithful and believes God's promises it is not only for his own sake but is also for all of us who are in union and fellowship with him. Matthew emphasizes this by immediately telling us that Jesus went into Galilee to announce the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of salvation and to command repentance and belief in the gospel (Matt. 4:12-17 and Isa. 9:1-6).

So while we cannot in good conscience participate in the ceremonies and circumstances of the Roman observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent we can still make use of it as an annual reminder that God has been, is, and will be faithful to all his covenant promises and he will do so because of the perfect obedience of Christ imputed to us. As Paul said, all promises of God find their yes in him (2 Cor. 1:20). We remember that Jesus endured temptation for us and we are righteous before God in him. We look forward to the promise of resurrection and eternal life with our Lord Jesus in heaven because God is faithful and Lent can be a helpful time of year to draw our attention to these promises. It is then also a chance to discuss what Jesus' temptation and obedience really means with our Roman Catholic friends.

1 comment:

richard said...

Having been brought up a Catholic, Lent is nothing new to me. As kids we all gave up candy. Lent is still a good time to contemplate the perfection of Christ in resisting any and all temptation, and, conversely, our inability to do so. It is also a time to look forward to Easter and the Resurrection of Christ, proving his power over death and sin. It's also a good time to check out the local Knights of Columbus (oh my!) who often have a great fish fry every Friday evening in Lent.