Marking a Fully Protestant Lent Feb23

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Marking a Fully Protestant Lent

As a sometime student of history for years it surprised me how thoroughly Lent had worked its way into certain Protestant circles. The custom of Lent — a 40-day period of fasting and penitence prior to Easter — began in the early Middle Ages and continues in some traditional churches until this day. But at the height of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther railed against abuses of Lent by writing:

“Lent has become mere mockery because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man. For although Christ did fast forty days, yet there is no word of his that he requires us to do the same and fast as he did. Indeed he did many other things, which he wishes us not to do; but whatever he calls us to do or leave undone, we should see to it that we have his Word to support our actions.

“But the worst of all is that we have adopted and practiced fasting as a good work: not to bring our flesh into subjection; but, as a meritorious work before God, to atone for our sins and obtain grace. And it is this that has made our fasting a stench and so blasphemous and shameful, so that no drinking and eating, no gluttony and drunkenness, could have been as bad and foul. It would have been better had people been drunk day and night than to fast thus. Moreover, even if all had gone well and right, so that their fasting had been applied to the mortification of the flesh; but since it was not voluntary it was not left to each to do according to their own free will, but was compulsory by virtue of human commandment, and they did it unwillingly, it was all lost and to no purpose.”

His biggest problem with Lent was that it had become mandatory — sometimes written into the laws of European Catholic countries. Once it became a legalistic requirement all spiritual value drained away. There’s no sense in fasting or penitence, Luther suggested, unless it’s around a specific, spiritual purpose. The Church had turned Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a mandatory, spiritual regimen for all people in Christian lands.

As our Worship Team knows, I’m a little troubled by the practice in some churches of muting the joy of the Christian message during Lent. The practice of squelching the word, “Alleluia,” to me is a case in point. Sunday was chosen for Christian worship because it was the day of the week on which Jesus’ resurrection took place. Each Sunday is to be a reliving of the joy of resurrection. And technically, Lent is the 40 days — plus Sundays — before Easter. So the penitential grasp of Lent shouldn’t intrude into Sunday worship.

But it’s true too that our Lenten penitence can be a little trite. Giving up lattes or chocolate during Lent doesn’t really say much about our sense of contrition for our sins or promise of repentance toward righteousness. There’s gotta be a better, more faithful way to build toward the annual celebration of Easter joy.

I’d propose that we use Lent as a time to focus our energies on our spiritual goals, rather than to give up a particular luxury. Why not commit ourselves to 30 minutes of meditation each day, or to reading a spiritual classic during this time? During Lent 1987 I read Louis Fischer’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and as a result in Eastertide I became a vegetarian. While I now eat fish and fowl, I haven’t intentionally eaten beef or pork since then.

So how about Lent 2012 as a time of reflection, meditation and focus, with the goal that by Easter we will take on God’s new direction for our lives? To me that seems like a stronger, more spiritual practice than taking on an external practice of contrition that only reminds us of our failings. Let’s instead make this a time of preparation for our Easter rebirth as God seeks an opening to inspire us to new depths of faith and transformation.