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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

Why Would You NOT Celebrate Lent?

Approaching Lent as a Process of Spiritual Preparation for the "Bright Sadness" of Holy Week

Ash Wednesday (Today) is one of the principal celebrations of the Liturgical Year. This holy day marks the Church’s entry into the forty-day period, culminating on Easter Sunday, known as Lent.


By about now, you will begin to see more and more among the public walking around with a smudged forehead, donning the ashes that carry great symbolism into the season they are entering.


The ashes are not only an outward sign of our faith, but they are also an admission that we are both reminded of and remorseful for the sinful contribution we invested in the debt for which Christ died to repay. And for that, the Church is penitent.


But the Church is also joyful for the hope that is in Jesus. In the Catholic Church, we are told, when receiving the ashes, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Gospel means GOOD NEWS, if you did not know that.


While the ashes symbolize humility (think OT sackcloth and ashes), they also symbolize that we will return to the same dust from whence we came. However, the hope of the Gospel is that redemption now awaits us.


In a way, the entirety of the Lenten Season is anticipated in the multifaceted symbolism, and deep meaning, of Ash Wednesday.


I’ve long-wondered, even prior to my return to the Catholic Church, why Lent was so seemingly disregarded. Why wouldn’t we AT LEAST observe it, if not celebrate it?


I think that question still has merit for believers in faith communities that hold little or no regard for Lent.


Being frank about it, there are always those with religious biases that are “anti” anything another portion of the Christian community may be doing. As such, I am sure there are those who would never give regard to Lent simply because other traditions do.


Yet, I suspect the greater number of folks take a pass on Lenten observance or celebration because they are either confused over it, or its simply so foreign to them, they wouldn’t know where to begin.


So, here’s a quick introduction to Lent.


WHAT IS LENT?


Everyone knows Lent as the 40 days prior to Easter. Right?


Technically, if you counted them out on the calendar they would total 46 days, as the Sundays (Sabbath) between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday are not counted (The Orthodox and some Protestants count the period slightly differently).


It’s a period which calls to mind Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting, in which He endured the temptations of Satan, in preparation for his earthly public ministry, which culminated in His death, Resurrection, and Ascension.


Likewise in commemoration, Lent is a period in which we, His Church, seek together to prepare ourselves spiritually for Easter, through prayer, devotion, fasting, abstinence, worship, charity, and reflection.


Lent is not at all about just “giving something up” that we know we’ll soon return to after Easter dinner. It is a shame that so many who claim Lenten observance reduce it to that.


Yes, self-denial is an important part of Lent. That is why you will find people who observe the period involved in both fasting and abstinence. But looking at Lent strictly as that, is a simplism that really misses the wonder of it all.


For more so than refraining from certain luxuries and joining in a few fasts, Lent is about recognition, reflection, remorse, repentance, reconciliation, and renewal.


________


Through Lenten devotion, liturgy, and worship, the Church gives constant RECOGNITION to what this Easter Season is all about—Christ Crucified and Resurrected. It is a period of spiritual devotion and prayer, in individual terms. But there are also corporate times of devotional recognition of Christ’s work, through liturgical devotions like the Stations of the Cross.


As we REFLECT upon that, we of course reflect upon or own sinfulness and how, by it, we managed to accumulate a debt we could never possibly repay.


REMORSE naturally accompanies such reflection, because the gravity of our own personal failings should never escape us when we look at the Cross/Crucifix that stands as the exclamation point for the declaration of forgiveness Christ has provided us, via His work on Calvary.


Lent is, then, a period for REPENTANCE. It is an opportunity for turning away from the desires, which so frequently are at the core of the sinful act. Thus, we lay aside certain luxuries and/or habits as a way of “mortifying the flesh” so as to spiritually take back some of what our “concupiscence” (tendency to gratify self) has yielded, in those instances when we turned our back on the Lord.


Christ’s work on Calvary is our RECONCILIATION. So while we reflect with remorse and repentance over the unpayable debt we’ve racked up … we are reminded that the climax of the season is our Redeemer. Jesus, who upon the Cross, paid for us the debt he did not owe. And He did so freely, because the Father loves His children so unconditionally, He longed for us to be reconciled with Him, no matter how soiled we ever became.


When we reduce the process of Lent to prohibitions, or it merely being about what we so easily set aside for a few weeks, it becomes a transactional thing, as opposed to a transformational one.


The goal … no, the longing … of Lenten observance should be emerging on the other end closer to God than we were. Therefore, Lent offers the possibility of RENEWAL, through sanctification. By leaving aside habits harmful to our relationship with the Lord, in favor of new formations of spiritual and self-discipline, this renewal deepens our devotional and discipleship lives.


HOW OLD IS LENT?


Lent is ancient. In fact, the resolutions of the Council of Nicaea (325) sort of matter of factly make mention of Lent (cf. Canon 5).


It was after this, widespread observance of Lent was really noted in the Church. Methods varied, however, from region to region, and it seems local bishops set the tone for how long, what, and upon which particular days Lenten fasting/abstinence was practiced.


St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I – 590-604) was the first to set forth a Church-wide approach to the observance of Lent. Again, 46 days prior to Easter. Or 40 days when the Sabbath-cycle days were not counted.

But like so much regarding the Church post-Nicaea, there is an eagerness among many to attribute such practices to the “Constantine effect” upon the Church. This frequent means for justifying why something is disregarded in a particular sphere, takes the posture that after the Christian faith became prominent in the Empire, it ceased being “true Christianity,” until (of course) “our denomination came along.”


(I kid you not when I say a good friend of mine shared a link to an article from a guy arguing “It’s Constantine’s Fault,” as I was writing this very portion. It’s popular).


There is a glaring inconvenience for such a posture, however, as it relates to Lent.


A period of fasting in anticipation of the Easter celebration is attested to in sources far earlier than 325.


For instance, St. Irenaeus (c. 128-202), a bishop of third generation apostolic succession (traced via Polycarp to the Apostle John), wrote to Pope Victor I (c. 190) of disagreements between eastern and western bishops within the Church, over the days and durations of the pre-Easter fast. Irenaeus further commented to the Pope that these variations were present in the time of “our forefathers,” strongly indicating reference to the first-generation Church, under the see of the Apostles themselves.


This is also supported by the fact that very early in the Church’s history, Easter was a most important day for the baptism of converts, into communion with the Church.


According to Tertullian (early third century), there was a certain solemnity for the practice, which had always been proceeded by the convert’s submission to a period of fasting (an interesting correlation in history to the ancient lineage of the Easter Vigil and the baptism of those entering full communion with the Catholic Church practiced to this day).


WHO RECONGNIZES LENT?


Lent has been a consistent practice of the Church (East and West), through the Reformation, to today, with many under the Protestant umbrella having maintained its significance along the way.


Presently, Lent is observed, to various degrees, in most “High-Church” (meaning more liturgical) communions. These would include (but is not limited to) such traditions as Anglican, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Catholic.


Lent is at least a somewhat familiar concept to practically most Christians though—including Protestant evangelicals—even if there is no formal recognition of it, beyond it merely being the lead-up to Easter Week. Although there are evangelical churches that observe Lent in some manner or other.


However, approaching Lent as a “celebration” is somewhat (but certainly not exclusively) unique to Catholics and Orthodox Traditions.


By “celebration,” we mean something a bit more intentional than merely observing Lent. It is an approach to Lent that submits to dedicating one’s self to something beyond just recognizing the season.


It’s intentionally sacrificing some things and adopting others in a regular and specific way, in unison with the entirety of the Church.


WHY WOULD I CELEBRATE LENT?


Does all this sound religious? Perhaps it is.


But what is wrong with that? Having read this far, what about Lent is objectionable? What about it offends your own “religious” sensibilities?


Or, honestly, is it really more just a reason to avoid it?


Now, that is a pertinent question, not a dig.


Because many Christians want to avoid all of what Easter involves and skip right ahead to the Resurrection. It’s quite common, in fact.


Notwithstanding, I would go as far as to say that is very consumer friendly religion.


Lent, however, is religion of the sacred and deeply meaningful variety.


Lent is a paradox, just as Easter itself is. For it is solemn but joyful, in that it anticipates and appreciates the brutality and beauty of Holy Week.


It is, as the Orthodox call it, a time of “bright sadness.” Consider these words by the Orthodox theologian Father John Breck, before a final question:


In his classic work, Great Lent, Fr Alexander Schmemann describes “Sad brightness” as “the sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.” It is sadness that permeates the Lenten season, with its long, fatiguing, magnificent liturgical services and its constant call to repentance. Yet it is a sadness leavened by a deep joy that only tears can adequately express. Tears of longing for the glory and peace to come, for the “recovered home” where the Father embraces each of us, His prodigal children, with a boundless depth of forgiving love. That bright sadness opens for me a vital sensitivity that I otherwise rarely experience.

On to the final question then … and I hope you’ll prayerfully consider it, whether your church regards Lent or not.


WHY WOULDN’T I CELEBRATE LENT?


Most prayerfully,


JZ

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