Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent

mardi-grasGrowing up in a non-denominational, evangelical tradition of worship, I was never particularly encouraged to participate in a liturgical event like Lent. Historically, after the Reformation, many Protestant churches abandoned the observance of Lent and other liturgical practices in distancing themselves from abuses in the Catholic church. Personally, the obscene excesses of Mardi Gras, the licentiousness of Fat Tuesday, and the legalistic penance I’ve observed on Ash Wednesday caused me to distance myself from Lent, too.

Rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, however, maybe we should consider the spiritual and relational benefits of preparing our hearts to remember the crucifixion of Jesus and celebrate His resurrection. Rather than giving up on Lent, it’s time we look to Jesus at Easter the same way we anticipate His Advent at Christmas.

journeyLent is a forty day journey of preparation —a season of prayer (talking and listening to God), fasting (focusing on God) and repentance (turning toward God and His purposes). It’s a time for reflecting on our shared experience of the suffering, death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very center of our faith.

Like the Apostle Paul, “My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” – Philippians 3:10

Lent could be, if observed in the context of our relationship with God by grace, a time of self-examination that leads us to the end of our self-sufficiency and to full dependence on Jesus. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary describes Lent as,

“The English word (stemming from an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘spring’ and related to the English word ‘lengthen’) that refers to the penitential period preceding Easter. Early Christians felt that the magnitude of the Easter celebration called for special preparation. As early as the second century, many Christians observed several days of fasting as part of that preparation.”

The traditional 40 day calendar for Lent goes from Ash Wednesday (March 6) to Easter (April 21), with exceptions for Sundays (always a feast day).  Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a celebration and reminder of human mortality, as a sign of mourning over sin, and repentance of turning to God in faith.

40daysForty is a significant number in the Bible—it signals a time of waiting and preparation. In Genesis, Moses shows us Noah and his family in the ark, enduring the rains for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:17). Moses, himself, spends another 40 days and nights on the top of a mountain, neither eating nor drinking as he experiences the presence of God (Exodus 34:28). In Numbers 14, Moses shows that the Lord God, fed up with the complaining and rebellion of the Israelites, condemned them to 40 years of wandering in the desert based on the 40 days they scouted the land of Canaan. We discover from Deuteronomy 8:2 that the purpose for the Israelites’ 40 year journey was to humble them and test them so they would realize what was in their hearts and their need for God’s presence and power.

Mirroring the Old Testament, the gospel writers of the New Testament reveal Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, fasting, and being tempted (tested) by Satan: “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness 40 days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels began to serve Him” (Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

reflections on Christ - crucifixionFollowing this pattern, followers of Jesus throughout the centuries have marked the 40 days leading up to His death and resurrection by a similar period of fasting  and testing known as Lent. May this season of Lent be one of repentance, hope, and joy in the resurrection of Christ—one that will last beyond these 40 days.

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.

What is Advent?

Advent_WreathWhat is this thing called Advent?

In 4th and 5th century Gaul and Spain, Advent was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany. That’s the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus’ life as his Baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the Magi. In those days,  believers spent Advent’s 40 days examining their hearts in worship.

It was not until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the “coming” that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but anticipation of His Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord’s advent or coming did not replace the older sense—the Second Coming.  The muted, somber anticipation of waiting remained alongside the joyous celebration of Jesus’ birthday.

So, modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16th, during which the focus is Christ’s Second Coming, and a period, from December 17th to the 24th, focusing on His birth. We light candles in anticipation of His Second Coming and in celebration of His incarnation. It starts with the Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a Messiah and New Testament passages trumpeting John the Baptist’s exhortations and the angels’ announcements.

Christ came with great anticipation and with plenty of prior notice! See Simeon in Luke 2:25-35. Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! And now we can join too, with the cloud of witnesses in the same proclamation!

Waiting in the LordAnd in the protected, quiet times of meditation, I can respond as I imagine believers have done on every Advent since the tradition began: I can bow my head and prepare for the return of the One who is always present, but who seems distant in my mind during the busyness of the season. I can mourn for my hardness of my heart. I can hope in His grace. And I can rejoice that in answer to the cry, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” He came.

During Christmas, we’re rushing around, busy with parties and programs and presents and plans. It seems like there’s hardly time to wait. But celebrating the waiting and longing for “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ? (Titus 2:11-14) is precisely what Advent is all about.