Today is Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, according to the Church Calendar. I don’t intend to go into a long ordeal over why Christians should pay attention to the Church Calendar, but just want to point out that the Church is the most important “body” that we are a part of. If we aren’t paying attention to the calendar of “our people,” why should we be paying attention to our national holidays and seasons? Think about it. As one fellow put it:
“All of us need to sanctify our calendars and make clear that nothing in the winter and springtime of the year—not Valentine’s Day, not spring break, not March Madness, not even the hockey playoffs—is as important to our identity as Jesus’ death and resurrection.”
The point of this post is to ask: why Lent? What’s the point, and should we be observing it in the “traditional” way? There are, of course, many respected scholars and theologians who have hashed this out to great lengths, so I don’t claim to have any new knowledge or understanding on the subject – these are just the humble observations of an ordinary layman.
To begin, besides the fact that I think it’s unBiblical, inconsistent, and just plain wrong to announce to the world (read: Facebook) what you plan to give up for Lent, I also believe that it is inconsistent to make Lent a time of “partial-fasting.”
The first thing we need to understand is the purpose of Lent – what is the season about? It has traditionally been seen as a time of preparation for Easter – to prepare and meditate upon the death and resurrection of Christ. After all, if we have a more full and complete understanding of Christ’s work on the cross for us, the more joyous and fulfilling our celebration will be!
This is all well and good, and I agree that Christians should use the season of Lent to prepare for Easter season, gaining a better understanding of Jesus’ ministry and eventual suffering. What I don’t get is how my self-denial of anything caffeinated is going to help.
Pastor Steve Wilkins explains this more clearly:
“I know that traditionally, Christians have “given up” something for Lent and usually that “something” has been something they particularly enjoy. This may be seen as a form of “fasting” I guess, but if it is, it’s a very pale shadow of what “fast” (doing without food of any kind) really means. I understand the rationale for the practice, but given its very limited focus, it seems to me to miss the point of fasting in general and is easily metamorphosed into something like a “Pharisaical” act (i.e. “God surely must be pleased with me since He sees me foregoing my usual afternoon grande chocolate-caramel-cinnamon mocha latte with extra foam, which I’m absolutely dying to have right now!”).
This is — probably unintentionally, but it is all the same — a distortion of the whole purpose of fasting. We fast to remind ourselves of the seriousness of our sins. Our sins are a high-handed insult to the gracious, loving God who made us. They are so grievous that we deserve no good thing from God — indeed, we deserve to starve to death. Fasting should have the same effect upon our attitude toward sin that spanking is designed to produce in our children — i.e. it should impress upon us that sin is bad, painful, worthy of death, and that I ought to hate it and stay away from it. I’m not sure that giving up Godiva chocolate for forty days always has the same effect.”
He goes on to say,
“Remember that the Christian calendar is designed to follow the life and work of Jesus. So Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation, Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of the Savior to the world (the visit of the Magi, the baptism, the miracle at Cana, etc., up to the transfiguration on the mount). And Lent focuses upon the time after the transfiguration to Jesus’ death on the cross.
After the transfiguration, we are told that Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem — focusing upon the work that he had been sent to do, dying on the cross for our sins. Lent is the season that commemorates our Savior’s path to Calvary.
For us, Lent should be a time for special focus on the price the Savior paid for our salvation and a time for reviewing our own lives. Jesus calls us to a life of willing self-denial and sacrifice (“if anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”).”
Now am I saying, or is Pastor Wilkins saying, that we shouldn’t learn to deny ourselves and encourage self-discipline? Of course not! But our works do not make us holy on their own. If we are going to remember and reflect on the work of Jesus, shouldn’t we pay attention to what He said and did? Christians often think about the season of Lent as imitating what Jesus did in the wilderness for 40 days after His baptism. But we’re totally missing the point if we think that His 40-days of fasting was to draw closer to the Father. Jesus had to suffer through the wilderness in order to restore obedience to the Father as the Second Adam. In the garden Adam failed to resist the devil. In the wilderness, without food for 40 days, Jesus – the Greater Adam – resisted temptation and defeated Satan. We have no need to “re-live” Jesus’ days in the wilderness. Our covenant head has already suffered for us, bringing us closer to the Father, and we are living a life POST-incarnation and POST-resurrection. Just because we remember and reflect upon the life of Jesus doesn’t mean that we need to “re-live” His life. It indicates an unfaithful distrust that His work is effectual. After all – we do not re-sacrifice Him every week in the Lord’s Supper; we remember and celebrate His sacrifice because of what He has done.
So yes – let us as Christians use the season of Lent to think about what we have been given. It is a great and undeserved gift. Our first head – Adam – failed us and gave us death. Our second and final head – Jesus – won the victory and gave us life. Eternal life.
The other, side point that needs to be made is that Jesus didn’t only sacrifice certain foods and luxuries while in the wilderness. He gave everything up. There was no “partial-fasting.” For that reason alone, I refuse in principle to believe that denying myself of bread, meat, coffee, or Facebook will be inherently good for my spiritual life. That is not to say that I shouldn’t discipline myself and make certain that I am not beholden or a slave to my desires, but doing so to live a life of moderation doesn’t necessarily help me further examine and reflect on the work of our Savior. We are sinners, yes. Our sins cost the Son of God His life, yes. Should we meditate on this? Yes. But we should meditate on it every day, every week, every year.
Pastor Wilkins concludes thusly:
“Lent is to be a special time of corporate self-examination — where we remember what our sins deserve and what they cost our Savior. It is a time when we focus upon the hatefulness and wickedness of sin and pray that the Lord increase our own hatred of all unrighteousness. And it is a time when we “improve our baptism” — praying afresh for strength to walk with joy and gladness in the ways of righteousness.
To say that such a season is unnecessary is akin to saying Winter is unnecessary. It’s like protesting the fact that some days are cloudy rather than clear or demanding a continual Springtime. Why do we have to have this time of year when the days are often dreary and dark and cold and wet? Everlasting Summer would be better, or, what about a continual harvest? Ah, now we’re talking!
Yeah, we’re talking all right, but we’re talking foolishness. Winter is a necessary preparation for Spring — and Spring is vital if we are to have something growing during the Summer and Summer is essential if we’re to have something to harvest in the Fall. All the seasons play their part. And so it is in the Christian calendar. Lent is a “winter-time” of preparation for the “spring-time” of the resurrection. Just as death leads to life, so the cross leads to glory. Lent helps us learn this lesson. It deepens our joy and love for the Savior who has given us eternal life by His willingness to die in our place.
So here’s the goal of Lent: to grow in love for the Savior and in thankfulness for His sacrificial death in our place, paying for our sins (which, remember, He did with great JOY — Heb. 12:2). Lent, properly observed, leads us to increased joy in the Lord.
And that ain’t a bad thing at all.”