Why I do and do not keep Lent: an introduction

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This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season. Lent marks the 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays).  It is a liturgical season focused on repentance, penitence, and preparation.

What most people think of when they think of Lent is the practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’. My dad dated a Catholic girl in high school before he met my Mom. I don’t think they were very serious, and when I ask him why they broke up, he always responds, “She gave me up for Lent.” I’m not sure if this is true or not, but we all know someone who gave up something–be it coffee, chocolate, or dating my dad—for Lent.  I didn’t grow up practicing Lent, but I am now in the Anglican church where Lent is practiced by our community. Many of us fast from something (give something up) or take on a practice or both during Lent. For those of us who didn’t grow up with this practice (and even many who did), there can be some misconceptions about why believers do and do not ‘keep Lent.’ These are worth addressing so we can better understand and explain why we enter into Lenten disciplines.

First, let’s address why we don’t practice Lent:

1. We don’t give things up because we think they are necessarily bad or immoral. This year, I’m avoiding Facebook during Lent, but that is not because Facebook is bad or sinful. I could make a good argument (and in fact have argued frequently) that Facebook is a good thing.  When people give up chocolate or meat or alcohol or coffee, it is not because we Christians think that if we enjoy something, it must be bad. Coffee, meat, alcohol and especially chocolate are very good things that show God’s goodness, creativity, and provision.

Of course, Christians ought to be interested and working toward breaking habits of sin–gossip, lust, judgment, anger, pride, and so on, but this is called repentance, which is certainly not limited to Lent. I’m not giving up Facebook in the way that I’m repenting of (and trying to give up) anxiety or impatience with my toddler. The former is a neutral or even good thing that I am choosing to fast from for a season. The latter is a manifestation of my brokenness and is a way that I’m failing to love that I need to allow God to change and heal.

2. We don’t practice Lent to earn anything from God.  Salvation is received solely as a gift (we call this ‘grace’.) And I daresay that God, who made all that is and sacrificed Himself to rescue us, is entirely unimpressed by my ability to go without sugar for 40 days. I once heard a pastor preach about how giving something up for Lent is a pointless or even harmful practice, arguing that the reason people practice Lent is because they “hate repenting.” The idea was that in Lent people give something up to sort of “score points” with God so we don’t have to actually recognize ourselves as sinners. We can sit and bask in our own self-righteousness as we sanctimoniously say, “No I would not like that glass of red wine.  I gave it up for Lent,” and smile self-satisfied at how righteous we are. I’m sure people out there have practiced Lent in this way (though I don’t know any of them). But if you do, for the love of God (literally), drink the glass of wine. Drink two.

3. We don’t practice Lent out of obligation or duty.  This way of thinking is the other side of the coin of #2. We Anglicans (or Catholics, Lutherans, et. al.) don’t think God will be mad at us if we don’t practice Lent. It isn’t a legalistic obligation to avoid God’s wrath. We believe that the entirety of God’s wrath was poured out on Christ in the crucifixion. God took our punishment on himself in its entirety. We don’t have to avoid meat or chocolate for forty days to try to make some kind of (pathetically small) recompense to an angry God. Christians believe that God actually delights in us because of what Jesus did and not at all because of what we do. Lent or no Lent, we are welcomed by God.

So why do we keep Lent? Stay tuned. Click here for more in  Monday’s post.