The War on Lent

Lent or Relent

It happens every year. Ash Wednesday arrives, and the war on Lent begins. Some Presbyterians and other Reformed are exercised by the fact that some Christians are observing Lent. They are most disturbed by the fact that some of their Presbyterian-Reformed brethren do not condemn but, rather, in some fashion observe Lent. Some of those, such as my friends Darryl Hart and Scott Clark, are consistent. They object to and altogether refuse to have anything to do with any of the Christian Year. (The truth is that Darryl Hart's book John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist helped to nudge me toward low church Anglicanism. I am a low church, Calvinist, 39 Articles Anglican who is sometimes given historically inaccurate identification of a "Presbyterian with a Prayer Book" - not meant as a compliment - which is really to say that I am a fellow-traveler with Cranmer, Ridely, and Latimer.) But Hart and Clark represent a pretty small minority within the Presbyterian-Reformed world. The ones who irritate me are those who get their underwear in a wad over Lent, but would protest if you took away Christmas and Easter. They want at a bare minimum to sing Christmas carols and hear Christmas sermons during what they call "the Christmas season" (which actually is Advent) and to sing Easter hymns and hear a sermon on the Resurrection on Easter. They may want much more: a choral program of Christmas music, a Festival of Lessons and Carols, a service on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or both. They may expect an annual observance of Reformation Sunday. Their churches may observe stewardship or missions seasons and occasionally the really important building campaign season. And, then there are the civil calendar observances - Mother's Day, a truly high and holy day, and lesser days such as Father's Day and Independence Day. So I thought it might be appropriate to republish a Blog that I wrote for my old Blog, The Christian Curmudgeon.

Lent in a Barbershop

The barbers at Pat's Place, my Pittsburgh barbershop, were Pat and Joe. It was a real man-place. It was the only barbershop I ever frequented where bottles of strong drink and glasses were available for the use of customers at Christmastime. Adding to the ambiance of the shop was that Pat and Joe seemed a little bit shady in a Pittsburgh sort of way. I looked forward to haircuts, because there was never any lack of stories, banter, and sometimes serious conversation.

Pat and Joe were practicing, if not very devout, Roman Catholics. I associate Lent with them both. Before I started frequenting the shop one Lenten season Pat lost of lot of weight by fasting.  But my main association of Lent and Pat's Place has to do with Joe, my barber. It happened that one Ash Wednesday I got my haircut. Joe was ticked off because, when he went forward that morning for the imposition of the ashes, the priest refused him. Joe had come at the last minute of the service, apparently wanting to be marked with the sign of the cross by the ashes before he went to work but not to participate in the liturgy that preceded. So he was not happy with the priest and was faced with the dilemma of either going to a later service or going without ashes for the year.

Pat's and Joe's Lenten observances are the stuff of ridicule for some Protestants, particularly the Presbyterians. To Pat and Joe can be added the great host of those from New Orleans east across to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to Mobile, and to Pensacola who are into the fleshly indulgence of the Mardi Gras season and Fat Tuesday itself but not the fleshly mortification of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Lent of all the observances connected with the church calendar arouses the most consternation and opposition among Presbyterian Protestants. I am neither for nor against Presbyterians and, heaven forfend, Baptists observing Lent, but I do want to make a couple of observations:

1. One person I read pointed out that Lent did not come to be observed till the fourth century. That makes its observance seem rather ancient to me (observance of Christmas began about the same time), but be that as it may, the Apostles' Creed dates from the fourth century, too.

2. Some make the point that Lent is a Roman Catholic observance that is incompatible with Protestantism. This is true only if Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and assorted other sects are not Protestants. The Lutherans, who started the Reformation, and the Anglicans of the Articles of Religion sort, who contributed not a few martyrs to the cause of Reformation in the time of Bloody Mary, will be surprised to learn they are not Protestants. It's OK with me if there are those who want to say that the observance of Lent is a sure giveaway of Romish tendencies so long as they know what they are saying about the majority of Christians who consider themselves to be Protestants.

3. Some argue that the observance of Lent is a complete contradiction of the the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Since I now belong to a communion in which many are enamored of N.T. Wright's criticisms of the historic Protestant doctrine, I will say that I am unpersuaded by Wright and quite content with the doctrine as formulated in Article XI. That said, I concede that the observance of Lent is contradictory to justification by faith alone, IF one observes Lent with any thought of atoning for one's sins or of contributing to one's righteous standing before God. What I contest is that the sober reflection and spiritual disciplines associated with Lent as practiced by Protestants are in any way associated with works righteousness. In fact I would contend that ordinary prayer and Bible reading are practiced by not a few Presbyterians as a way of making up for their sins, assuring themselves they are sincere and forgiven, and proving their seriousness about holiness of life. The justification by faith alone contention cuts more than one way.

4. It is argued that receiving the imposition of ashes in particular and the whole of Lenten practices in general are a matter of practicing one's piety to be seen of men in which case one receives his reward now in the praise of men. I grant that this is possible, but I would point out that many other practices accepted by evangelicals may come under scrutiny, too. Perhaps ladies who wear cross pendants without a second thought should reconsider. So should those who would think it a virtual denial of the faith not to bow heads, close eyes, and offer audible prayer before meals in restaurants. During part of my undistinguished public high school career I was a member of the Bible Study Club led by an old maid dispensationalist school teacher who was also a member of my church. One of the things members were encouraged to do was to carry their Bibles along with their books from class to class. Of course this was "bearing a testimony" not emulating the Pharisees. It is not just the Roman Catholics or the Lutherans or we Anglicans who can be charged with practicing righteousness before men.

5. It is objected that it is contrary to Christian liberty to fast or engage in other acts of self-denial during Lent. It is sometimes said that observers of Lent give up sin for the Lenten period. No doubt there are some misguided people who think they can do that (such as those engage in debauchery during Mardi Gras only to repent during the season of Lent), but I know of no church that teaches that sin may be indulged the rest of the year so long as one gives it up at Lent.

Others argue that it is wrong to practice self-denial during Lent for self-denial should be practiced at all times. That is both true (yes, we are called to daily self-denial) and false. It is false in that the New Testament does call for or approve temporary practices of self-denial. How many conservative evangelicals, when they preach on the Sermon on the Mount, point out that Jesus did not say, "If you fast...", but, "When you fast...". Fasting by its very nature is limited in duration of time. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 contemplates a situation in which a couple may agree to sexual abstention by mutual agreement for a spiritual purpose for a short period of time.

Those who object to the Lenten call to mortification of sin and to denial of indulgence in otherwise lawful fleshly pleasures might consider the "rules" set forth by the Directory of Worship adopted by the Westminster divines:

A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; and much more from whatever is in the nature or use scandalous and offensive, as gaudish attire, lascivious habits and gestures, and other vanities of either sex; which .i.we; recommend to all ministers, in their places, diligently and zealously to reprove, as at other times, so especially at a fast, without respect of persons, as there shall be occasion.
Those who object to Lenten self-denial are right to protest trivial self-denial such as giving up chocolate or coffee or Facebook. But Presbyterians cannot object to religious fasts as their own Confession of Faith teaches that in addition to the parts of ordinary worship are "religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner." With regard to substantial self-denial it seems to me what is protested is self-denial during Lent. It is similar to the case of those who believe it is proper to preach about our Lord's incarnation and birth and about his resurrection so long as care is exercised not to do so when others are observing Christmas or Easter.

6. Others argue that the observance of Lent is "will-worship", the introduction into the life of the church of man-made observances which are not authorized in the New Testament. That is fine, so long as one is prepared to be consistent. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America as well as a minority scattered among the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church in America are commended for their conviction and consistency. But most Presbyterian and Reformed churches and people are not prepared to go that far.

They make fun of Lent and object to it on principial grounds. But they celebrate Christmas and many observe Advent. They celebrate Easter and many observe Holy Week with Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday.

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a Presbyterian Church where every one's underwear would have got into a wad if the word "Lent" had been uttered. The ministers would never have let the word "Advent" come from their lips. However, during the "Christmas season" every sermon - Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening - was related to Christmas. That is far more than I, who preached an Advent series every year of my ministry as a Presbyterian, ever considered doing.

For a number of years I attended the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference. This was attended mainly by Baptists and Presbyterians. But there were enough from among the Christian Reformed that the leadership noticed that some years the CRC men did not come. Why? Because the Conference conflicted with Ascension Day (which occurs on a Thursday). It was announced that, since this was a very important observance for the Christian Reformed brethren, care would be taken about the dates of the Conference in the future.

So often it is a matter of whose ox is being gored.

Those who object to Ash Wednesday and Lent on principial grounds should recognize that that what they object to on principial grounds is the Christian year. For those who do not reject the Christian year, but allow for the observance of some parts of it, the issue of Lent is one of preference and discretion.

By the way, no drinks served at Pat's Place during Lent. I am not sure if betting was suspended for the 44 days or not.

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