I’m a pastor and I should know what Lent is or means, right?
Well here it goes… Lent isn’t just some “church calendar item” that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Good Friday.
What if I suggested it was much much more…
What if we suggested it was front row for the apocalypse?
Maybe then we’d turn from the ritual piety of ash forehead smearing and social media-fasting-devo-updates into something slightly more substantive.
One of my absolute favorite authors is the stunner-Eugene Peterson. In his book “The Contemplative Pastor” he speaks of the need to take on a ‘catastrophic urgency’ like that of John the Baptist who he calls ‘the alert and the alive pastor’… I wonder will the same be said of me?
Peterson goes on, and this about sums it up:
Apocalypse is arson-it secretly sets a fire in the imagination that boils the fat out of an obese culture-religion and renders a clear gospel love, a pure gospel hope, a purged gospel faith.
It’s a 40-day period marking the anticipation and arrival of the Messiah and his saving work. If only we begged and pleaded like those who cried, Hosanna (“help, save I pray”) that first Holy Week so many years ago.
They understood that the number 40 signified: a great testing.
It’s a time for fasting and its a time for prayer. So we’ll give something up. That something typically ranging from hard shell candies to technology to whole meals.
We do devotionals and read little daily posts meant to inspire the 40-day march and then we commemorate with the single greatest “wall-expansion” weekend service of the entire year. (Because everyone goes to church 1-2 times a year-Easter and Christmas-though a failure to cement Good Friday as an equally critical service to remember is a travesty, but I digress.)
So what’s it really all for? Is it merely a “church calendar tradition” of old? Just something that some priests picked up on 500 or 1000 years ago and so we keep up with tradition?
I should tell you: I’m a HUGE fan of challenging tradition. Whenever you hear those “its what’s always been done” and “well this is how we always do it…” it just becomes some rote tradition that loses its true meaning somewhere along the way.
I’m a fan of challenging the status quo.
I’m a fan of revitalization campaigns.
I’m a fan of making something old-new again, new and true, again.
And I mean I would venture that LENT has been lost on us a bit if our first train of thought is: “man, Lent is coming around, what are we giving up for Lent?”
As in, “Lent’s coming around what’s our ‘tweetable’ 40-day challenge, fast, competition going to look like?!” I would argue that that’s sort of a default.
That’s in need of some re-envisioning.
But before we can re-envision we should note origins-so often this is where the new life comes from-going back to where things began.
Ted Olson From a 2008 Christianity Today article helps us understand, first, the closest approximation of how the tradition began as we use it today:
Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory, who is regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name.
As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).
This is a little better. Because if we heard this today like it was being done for the first time… ‘oh hey some preacher in southern california’s putting ash on people’s skin as a symbol of our impending doom and TONS of people are walking to the front of the room to have it done’… we might respond differently to that apocalyptic counter-culture.
So in one regard I’ll say I’m jealous of the Catholics and other Protestant denominations who are still throwing down ash to serve up reminders. But still does it carry weight… all these catholics showing up for mass on Wednesday night because their great aunts asked them too, but then again it’s almost kind of trendy to wear the ash out to dinner that night and celebrate the upcoming fast… from french fries.
If we are going to celebrate a reminder as the global church-catholic, protestant, eastern, western-of Christ’s impending and triumphant re-entry then how about we do the thing some justice by really reconciling ourselves with the apocalypse that is 40.
40 days of wandering the desert-hungry, alone, tempted by the prince of demons?!
40 days floating up and down in a vessel not meant for serious sea voyage and the life-breath of every animal that walked on dry ground?!
40 years of hopeless meandering in the desert?!
What’s our 40-day, 40-hour, 40-month, 40-year call to action? How will we stand up to the test? And will we anticipate the messiah with a ‘catastrophic urgency’ that affects the way we live every moment?