Why are Lent and Ash Wednesday a good idea?
This is a post from a previous year that I am re-posting today because, obviously, it is Ash Wednesday that, for me, helps answer some of that question.
This is the week that we Christians who follow a liturgical pattern of the year mark the journey through Lent and toward Easter. It all begins on Ash Wednesday. I consistently find that when I take the ash and observe Lent my experience of Easter is much richer and therefore more meaningful to me. I did not grow up in a church which practiced Lent and Ash Wednesday, so when I learned about it as an adult I was skeptical. However, as I dug around and realized that sin, prayer, confession and death with eternal judgment were all major themes, I knew I was all in. What kind of Baptist doesn’t get excited about that! But over the years as I have led my church to practice and observe Ash Wednesday and Lent I have encountered some objections to the practice.
1. Lent is only for Roman Catholics.
There is a certain amount of truth to that claim. Catholics do observe Lent and Ash Wednesday. However, the counter is true as well. Catholics also baptize and preach. Does that mean I should not baptize and preach? No, certainly not. The best answer to this argument though, is that the roots of Lent and Ash Wednesday go way back to a time way before there were any distinctions such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists. Much of Catholic history and tradition is also my tradition—we have a shared origin in Christ and the early church. Besides, some of the greatest Christians I’ve ever met, studied, read, or learned about have been Roman Catholics. It is time we put such prejudices and biases away.
2. Ash Wednesday and Lent are too negative.
Yes, I suppose that is the way it might seem. The major themes of Ash Wednesday are death, dust, mortality, sin, confession, fasting and contrition. Lent, if done correctly, will be very uncomfortable and sometimes a downer. People from traditions which emphasize the “Jesus makes me happy all the time” might be a little put off by such ‘negativism.’ The thing, though, is that the Scriptures call us to contemplate such. I should be painfully aware of my own mortality. “From dust I came and to dust I shall return” is a powerful thought. Our culture likes to pretend death isn’t real, but it is and therefore I must confront my sin and deal with it in this life. I should get my appetites under control and bring my body into discipline. Ash Wednesday and Lent help us do that with a focus and the help of our community.
3. We should always pray and fast and confess, not just one season a year.
I so agree. I try and make prayer and confession a part of my daily routine. Fasting is the kind of thing I’ve done in various ways throughout the year. I especially encourage fasting before making big decisions. It clears the mind. But again, I bring the counter argument to this objection by saying if we should always be doing it, then how can it be wrong to be doing it now, at Lent, when millions, if not billions of people around the world are also engaged in it. By fasting, praying, and confessing at the same time the Christian community is bound by a common experience which might have a powerful impact on the world.
I also ask, if you do not fast during Lent, then when do you fast? The New Testament seems to expect it of Christ-followers and if you’re not going to do it now, then when do you plan on it? Why not now?
Before I bring this to a close, I want folks to understand I am not trying to convince anyone they have to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent to be a good Christian or even for Easter to be significant. Many good, wonderful, Jesus-loving Christ-followers never follow Lent and are great people whom I admire. What I am arguing is that the practice of it is not inherently wrong or misguided, and that many people might actually be stirred by the practice in positive ways. It can’t hurt and it just might change your perspective for the better.
If you’re interested, but don’t really know where to start, check out Suggested Guidelines for Lent. It is a good place to start.