Unlike other “holidays” celebrated by the secular and the religious, the Lenten season seems to be reserved for the “dedicated religious believers”. While we may truly be dedicated, we must seek to understand what Scripture teaches about observing such celebrations rather than following the traditions of man (Mark 7:7-9).
Regardless of our denominational background, Western Christian liturgical calendars are based on the cycle of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church since this cycle pre-dates the Reformation. Consequently, the Catholic Church is where we should turn to understand the practice of Lent. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia:
Lent is the period of six and one half weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. During Lent, for 40 days, excluding Sundays, fasting is recommended for all Catholics according to the laws of fast. This is reminiscent of the 40 days of our Lord's unbroken fast (Matthew. 4:3-4).
The real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ…the better the preparation the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.
This explains the common question, “What are you giving-up for Lent?” While “spiritual discipline” may be a good thing, no amount of any form of self-denial makes us clean before God. Instead, Scripture teaches that we are purified by faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:11-14, Acts 15:9).
Do we truly believe that we can adequately prepare ourselves to “relive the mystery” of Christ’s death and resurrection by relinquishing one worldly pleasure or another for 40 days? In fact, if such things are so “bad” that we feel a need to “sacrifice” them for Lent, why are we doing them at all? Isn’t it magical thinking to believe that we can earn favor with God by such practices?
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world,
why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—
“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”…
—according to human precepts and teachings?
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion
and asceticism and severity to the body,
but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Stay tuned next week for more on “What’s Lent?”