I've always been uneasy about observing church festivals. This is probably because I am not from a very conservative liturgical tradition. In the churches of my youth, we were "Bible-believing Evangelicals" who followed the doctrine of sola scriptura to the point of iconoclasm (and sometimes anticlericism).
To my ilk, Ash Wednesday had a dangerously Roman feel. We had read Jack Chick's tracts; we knew Catholicism was a slippery slope. One day you're smearing ashes on your forehead, and the next you're sprinkling water on babies and buying papal indulgences. Who knows how far you'll go once you take that first step toward idolatry?
So I suppose it's strange that I have been practicing intentional self-deprivation since Ash Wednesday. And that I intend to do so until Easter Sunday. Almost sounds like... Lent.
How did I get here from there? What changed my iconoclastic mind about the spiritual value of ancient liturgical traditions? I attribute it to two main elements.
Firstly, as a history major in college, I became enchanted with monks. I loved the idea of a life devoted to purity, piety, and praise. At one point, I briefly considered trying to live my life by the Rule of St. Benedict. While I didn't take the leap, I am still fascinated with the idea that pious practices can help to mold my mind, heart, and life to be more like Christ.
Secondly, in recent years, I have come to believe that it would be a grave error to ignore two millennia of church tradition. I don't believe that tradition has the same weight as scripture. However, that doesn't mean tradition is worthless. To observe the seasons of the liturgical calendar is to join with billions of other saints, both present and departed, in their faith walk.
In my mind, Lent is one of the most beautiful and valuable observances in the church year. Traditionally, Roman Catholics give up meat during Lent.1 However, common practice today (especially for vegetarians or those who don't eat much meat anyway) is to simply give up something that matters to you. (In case you want to read more, here is an excellent post about Lent, written by a friend of mine who is an Episcopalian priest.)
So, what do I hope to gain from this commitment to self-denial? Here are a couple of lists I made to clarify for myself why I was (and wasn't!) observing Lent:
Observing Lent Will Not:
- Increase God's love for me. Since before the foundation of the world, He has loved me with an immeasurable love. The person of Jesus Christ is the inarguable earnest of that love.2
- Enhance my worthiness. By myself, I am an unholy, rebellious, sinful person who deserves no more chances. Out of His great love, God chose to call me from death into life. He didn't do this because of anything I have done or could do; He did it because He was pleased to do it.3
- Make me more righteous. My righteousness comes from Jesus Christ's substitutionary atonement for my sins on the cross.4
I Pray That Observing Lent Will:
- Increase my love for God. As I focus on Him and what He has done for me, may my gratitude and love overflow in response.
- Remind me of my weakness. When I fail to keep my commitment, either in letter or in spirit (as I have many times during this season), I am reminded of my frailty and need for a savior. With the crowds in Jerusalem, I cry out to Jesus, "Hosanna - Save me now!" How desperately I need His power to pull me out the terrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock.
- Make me more repentant. I am surrounded by sin. So often, my concept of Christianity is to avoid sin, rather than actively turning away from it and going the other direction. I have not been called from darkness into nothing; I have been called into the glorious light of God's son. I pray that this Lenten season will help me to wholeheartedly reject my sin and fiercely pursue an active, positive righteousness.
1Why meat? And why is fish OK? If you're going to make people give up things they don't want to give up, why not make them give up alcohol, for instance? I'm glad you asked. As he so often does, St. Thomas Aquinas has an appropriately hilarious answer for you:
[F]asting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods ...2 See Rom. 5:6-8.
Three things concur in the act of procreation, namely, heat, vitalspirit, and humor. Wine and other things that heat the body conduce especially to heat: flatulent foods seemingly cooperate in the production of the vitalspirit: but it is chiefly the use of flesh meat which is most productive of nourishment, that conduces to the production of humor. Now the alteration occasioned by heat, and the increase in vitalspirits are of short duration, whereas the substance of the humor remains a long time. Hence those who fast are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables which are flatulent foods.
3 See Rom. 3:10-12.
4 See II Cor. 5:21.