Lent was trending on Twitter in my part of the world yesterday. Here’s a sample from the people I follow…
First the funny…
- Malcolm Turnbull: Options for Lent – give up (a) alcohol or (b) talking about Rudd/Gillard?
- Jonathan Holmes: If everyone gave up (b) no one would need (a)
[Explanation for those outside Australia. There is a leadership tussle within the federal party of government, between current PM Ms Gillard and the former PM she deposed, Mr Rudd. Mr Turnbull is a prominent member of the opposition party, who was himself once ousted as party leader in a similar showdown! Mr Holmes is a media commentator.]
Then there are people like Noel Piper who twittered, promising,
“Beginning tomorrow–Ash Wednesday–I’ll post daily Lenten Bible readings to turn our hearts toward the cross.”
That sounds like it’s heading in the right direction! And indeed, my esteemed older colleague, Reg Piper, from whom I learn so much, published a great little daily Bible study guide for Lent in 2011 called Ephesus and the New Humanity, which many people found helpful.
On the other hand, a leading public Australian Christian leader, Tim Costello (whom I admire for his gambling reform campaign) tweeted:
It’s the beginning of Lent and 40 days to focus on what matters most in life. To love God, our neighbours and the world good place to start.
I realise Twitter only gives you a very limited letter count, but this sounds like an invitation to a potentially Christless Lent. And what matters more in life than my efforts to love anyone are God’s efforts to love sinners like me – perfectly executed in the death of Christ.
Over on Facebook, a Matthias Media author, John Dickson, gave some suggestions…
Lent begins … and here are the rules (for Reformed Anglicans, anyway): 1. Choose something from which to abstain as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. 2. Abstain from it from Wed 22 Feb until Easter Day, excepting all the Sundays of Lent – which are Feast days in the Christian calendar (and so the 46 day lenten period adds up to a 40 day fast). 3. Think of Christ’s death for sins just a little bit more than usual. 4. Don’t show off . Enjoy.
Apparently, it’s “Reformed Anglican” because it’s in the Book of Common Prayer, and a commenter pointed out that Cranmer’s newly minted collect for the first day of Lent threw away the heavy fasting “by works” emphasis and prays…
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Another commenter, also a friend, said,
Need to recover the Christian calendar. 40 days of intensive wrestling in prayer is good for the soul.
It’s hard to argue against all this. But the “need to recover” sentiment helped me work out why I’m a bit worried. Why do we need to recover Lent? It’s not a festival or season commanded in Scripture.
And (maybe I am being insensitive to the relaxed way language is used on Facebook) it worries me to talk about “rules” for Lent. Because none of John’s rules are terrible, unless you think the first rule means you must or should abstain from something for Lent.
But I don’t think fasting or any particular abstention is ever urged on us as a spiritual necessity at any particular time. And why should we “think of Christ’s death for sins just a little more than usual” at Lent? Is there ever a day we should think a little less of it?
As I say, I am being picky. But I’m a little uneasy at how excited everyone seems about Lent. Yes, it may be Anglican. Yes, it may be used for useful purposes. But no, Lent isn’t commended, let alone commanded, anywhere in Scripture as far as I can see!
All this forced me back to the Bible to reflect a bit more. (Finally!)
Firstly I thought of Romans 14…
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (NIV84)
OK, Paul happily accepts people who consider certain days or seasons as more sacred than others. I should assume the absolute best about my Christian brothers and sisters, even if I don’t share their view on special days or seasons. And I am sure that however Noel or John or Reg or Peter acknowledge Lent, they absolutely do so to the Lord and give thanks him. Clearly Lent can be and is used for good purposes.
Romans 14 continues…
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. […] 13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.
So it’s crystal clear: I must not judge brothers who choose to observe or emphasise Lent.
But… there is that stumbling block thing. We must be concerned for the weaker brother. Because difficulties might arise for him from our attitudes or actions with one of these disputable matters.
And here my mind turned to Colossians 2…
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
The Bible testifies that humans have an inveterate tendency towards turning religious ritual – even good religious ritual like prayer or song – into a substitute for trusting Christ and God’s provision of mercy through the cross.
Colossians itself warns us about those who get all enthusiastic about not handling, not tasting and not touching (Col 2:21-22). There is danger there that such religious works displace grace.
And so I am still a bit worried that all the enthusiasm for Lent, all the urgings of the need, wisdom, or great spiritual value of giving something up or adding some special activity could unwittingly lead some others in such a direction (not withstanding warnings against it).
Probably not for the urger. But what of the urgee?
The reality is Christ. Do we need anything more?
This twit will give the last word to another tweeter, Glen Scrivener (of the superb King’s English website, celebrating the message and language of the KJV!) Perhaps his tweet gets it righter than me!
Neither Lent nor refraining-from-Lent means anything. What counts is the new creation. Galatians 6:16
Actually, let’s make Galatians 6:14 the last word, for the best context of all!
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.