Advent wreaths. Advent devotionals. Lenten devotionals. These have been showing up in surprising places over the last few years. From the time I was a kid and well past my University years, only Catholics and Anglicans did those things (I cannot remember knowing any Lutherans).
To evangelicals like myself, both groups were suspect.
Evangelicals celebrated Christmas and Easter, but that was that, none of this Advent or Lent stuff. When I became an Anglican (I was 24), I quickly came to accept and appreciate the idea of (or discipline of) the Christian Year. But there were many aspects of how that year was practiced and explained by Canadian Anglicans that I found troubling—I still do.
At the same time, I find the way both “sides” talk about lent unhelpfully. Here is what I mean:
First, “mere religion” and “legalism” are human problems that tempt all people in all Christian denominations, not just some.
So yes, the way I often saw Lent practised and explained was religious and often legalistic. How could anyone think it is a biblically driven idea to not say “Alleluia” during Lent? (A widely observed Anglican lenten practice). Keeping Lent can become a “litmus” test as to whether you are a real Anglican or even a Christian. Keeping Lent can become a “boundary marker”. This means you keep lenten practices to show you are not like those other people who call themselves Christians but do not keep Lent.
Keeping Lent can lead to “denial competition”, as people strive to add to the list of things they give up for Lent – the focus being on giving up more, not on Who they are giving things up for. Lenten practice can become a means by which some people (stricter observers) can look down their noses at “lax” observers. Lent can be connected to political and social agendas or to physical well-being – so rather than “the things of earth shall grow strangely dim” it becomes “the gospel shall grow strangely dim”.
However, the problems are not all in one direction. Not keeping Lent can become your boundary marker and litmus test for real Christians. Teaching against fasting can be seen as a virtue. Everyone can become legalistic and have a “religious spirit” about how their church service is organized or unorganized; whether you clap your hands or raise your arms or never do either; whether you sing hymns because they are deep or never sing them because they are old and boring; whether you strive to be hip or strive to be the opposite of hip; what translation you use; whether your Bible is on paper or on your device, it is easy to go on.
Legalism and a religious spirit are human problems.
Second, we need to think more about the logs in our own eyes and less about the specs in other people’s eyes.
Yes, we should be rejecting legalism and the religious spirit, but as said above, these are inherently human problems, not the sole problems of people in a different tribe than your own.
The fact is, the Lord has used the practice of Lent to grow godliness in many people for many generations. Some of us need to remember this.
The other fact is that for many generations the Lord has grown godly people who never kept Lent. Some of us need to remember this.
Pray that the day will come when we can die to non-biblical boundary markers and either learn from the spiritual practices of brothers and sisters outside our “tribe,” or rejoice with our brothers and sisters outside our tribe that some spiritual practice we do not use has really been used by God to help them.
Third, it is a good thing to learn from godly people who lived long before us.
Augustine has been making a comeback in some circles. Hooray! So has Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and J.C. Ryle. Godly writers from long ago are not always right. Only the Bible is God’s word written. Only the Bible is inerrant and able to speak to every culture and every person because the Triune God is the ultimate author.
So, on one hand, both the old writer and you come to the Bible as equals and are judged by it. But, on the other hand, these men, and other men and women, have proved to be wise long beyond the fashions and prejudices of their own day.
So we can expect that they have much to teach us. As well, reading an older godly Christian writer, one who lived in a very different time and place than we do, can help us hear the Bible better, and better see our culture in light of the Bible.
Fourth, consider Lenten practices in light of the Collect for Ash Wednesday (and all of Lent) as written by Thomas Cramner, a key figure in the English Reformation.
“Almighty and everlasting God, You hate nothing that You have made, and You do forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Note, “wretchedness” does not describe how you feel. It describes that as a fallen creature, “the wages of sin are death”. There is nothing, naturally speaking you can do about this. That is a wretched state. We are not made right with God by Lenten disciplines.
Only the God of all mercy can make us right with Himself – we need to receive from Him perfect remission and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord. If you deny yourself to get close to Him, remember that He hates nothing that He has made. If you desire to know more deeply the reality of your sin (and its horror), remember both the remission of your sins in Him and His willingness to forgive as you confess.
If you take steps to deepen your knowledge that He is almighty and everlasting God, remember that you only know Him through Jesus Christ your Lord. So, approach your Lent with this prayer in mind, let its concise theology form you, and may it be the prayer of your heart as you do what you do, or give up what you give up, all for His glory and praise.