Friday, March 2, 2012

Lent may not be necessary, but it’s nice

This week began the season of Lent. The 40 days leading up to Easter (excluding Sundays) are intended to be a time of prayer and penance demonstrated by some form of self-denial. In many countries, the day before Lent is celebrated with overindulgence in anticipation of the solemn season. Ash Wednesday then officially begins Lent.

Lent dates back to the church fathers. In its earliest form, it is believed that Christians fasted only for the few days before Easter. By the end of the fourth century, the period of preparation had been extended to 40 days.

A 40-day observance was likely selected because of its spiritual significance in connection with preparation. The Scriptures tell us Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai, without eating or drinking, as he prepared to receive the Ten Commandments. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.

While strict fasting rules have been eliminated in Western Christianity, Lent continues to be observed in Roman Catholic churches and some mainline Protestant denominations, including Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican. Ash Wednesday and much of the Lenten season go largely unnoticed in many Christian churches.

Some evangelicals object to Lent because it is not found in the New Testament. This argument is baseless. Christmas and Easter are not celebrated in the Bible either, yet they are widely accepted as sacred Christian holidays.

Perhaps a more valid objection is to the ritualistic practices that characterize Lent, such as the rubbing of a cross with ashes on the foreheads of worshippers on Ash Wednesday. In the Hebrew Bible, humility and deep remorse for one’s sin were displayed by wearing sackcloth and ashes, accompanied by a period of fasting. After Christ’s resurrection, many such rites were abandoned and the apostles encouraged prayer as the means of repentance. Further, Jesus cautioned his followers against advertising a fast: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.” The warning here is against wrong motivation.

The Lenten fast is not a biblical mandate; nevertheless, all Christians can benefit from observing the season. Prayer and fasting affirm Christians’ devotion to and dependence on God. The act of self-denial is intended to allow individuals to focus more on spiritual things — not always an easy task in hurried and harried lives. This need not happen during Lent, but in the days leading up to Easter, when we celebrate the sacrifice Jesus made to atone for sin, it seems fitting to renounce sin and reaffirm commitment to God.

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