Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why I Observe Lent (and other seasons)

With the coming and going of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, we are currently in the midst of the season of Lent. Lent consists of the 40 days (not including Lord’s Days) leading up to Easter. It is traditionally a time of some sort of a fast or a foreswearing of something in which one would normally take pleasure. For example, devout Catholics typically do not eat meat during this time, with the exception of fish. (I have been fascinated by grocery stores’ awareness of this season by discounting seafood, at least in Seattle.)

During the Middle Ages, when Christendom reigned, the observance of Lent was essentially mandatory. Then again, when virtually everyone in your town or village practiced it, you would have been subversive to the life of the community to express your individuality by refusing to observe these practices. The practices were part of the community’s identity.

With the Reformation, fortunately, godly men searched out the Biblical justification of all the practices of the Christian community. They rightly observed that whereas in the older covenants, feasts and festival seasons were mandated, in the New, resurrected Covenant the specificity of obligation was different. Previously angels tutored men to act in specific ways. Heavenly bodies ruled over time. Leviticus 23 and other passages in the law outline very precisely the feasts that were to be observed.

But now, we are no longer under those elementary principles. We have grown past our childhood, and men, humans, are now entrusted with the decisions about times and seasons. Angels no longer rule us. We rule angels. The Holy Spirit resides in the Church to guide her in establishing practices that mark out the community of believers. The practices that are Scripturally mandated for the entire community include Lord’s day gathered worship, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. But as we observe the history of the Church, we can see the Holy Spirit work to create healthy, though not strictly obligatory, traditions that identify believers with Christ and with His body.

So why add more practices than those explicitly required by Scripture? (After, if it’s not commanded, it’s forbidden, right? or at least dangerous?) Is it not legalistic to do more than God Himself requires? Concerning Lent, is not the denial of the flesh gnostic or ascetic? If everyone else around me is fasting, and I know it, is that not contradictory to the requirement that fasts be secret (Matt. 6:16-18)? Recently, I have read online people caricature and criticize the observance of Lent for these reasons.

The discussion of the observance of Lent needs to begin with considering of the nature of observing any practice or ritual in the New Covenant situation. Too often the question of the relationship between the older covenants and the New resorts to battles of continuity versus discontinuity. And whereas those discussions are important, they often don’t tell the entire story. To fill out the narrative, we need to recognize that the relationship among the covenants is one of progression and growth. Over the course of her history, the people of God have matured, as was intended from the very beginning.

Under the older covenants, God’s community was in her infancy and childhood. She was treated like a child and was expected to mature to greater and greater glory. We clearly see this progression as we trace the history presented in Scripture from the priestly period of law to the kingly period of wisdom to the prophetic period of divine counsel. Now, in Christ, this body has grown into adulthood and is expected to act like adults.

Yet adults do not forsake the impulse to practice (good) patterns and habits, an impulse nurtured during their childhood. Practices, more than beliefs, are means of making adults into who they are, that is, of forming their identity.

Applied to the Church in the resurrected covenant situation, it would be foolish to throw off the establishment of regular rituals and seasons. For it is by those rituals that her affections are nurtured. It is by the liturgical practices of the Church that her doctrine is established and her desires are oriented toward Jesus. It is by practices that the community is defined. And it is in those liturgies that she lives within and lives out the life of Jesus her husband. If we are to love our husband as we ought, we need to establish grace-saturated rituals all throughout our life: daily, weekly, and yearly ones.

In other words, mature life, Church life is not dictated simply by the dos and don’ts of Scripture. We have grown beyond the mere avoidance of evil in order to be free from feelings of guilt. We also pursue our Lover. We seek to display that love not simply by doing “normal life” with the right heart attitude (as important as that is) but by increasingly incorporating grace-filled, joy-producing, love-evincing practices that deepen our wild and reckless love for our husband.

During Lent, by living in Jesus’ Passion, we exhibit our passion for Him.

1 comment:

  1. Challenging post, Joe. Thx for this. I've never thought of it as mature pursuit of our Lover.