In Preparation for Lent

NHL's Stanley Cup.
Hockey players do not seem to complain about dead rituals when receiving the Stanley Cup. Why do Christians when we seek spiritual rewards? (Image via Wikipedia)

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.  For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:5-8, ESV).

Ten days until Ash Wednesday. This is not exactly a season of the church year that excites a lot of people. Advent excites people, mainly because it has been secularized along with Christmas. While Advent should be a time of spiritual preparation (we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, and at the same time reflect on how we await His Second Coming), it has become for most Americans the “Christmas season,” when we invade department stores like hordes of barbarian raiders, go to Christmas parties, and rock out to songs about flying reindeer, talking snowmen, Santa Clause, etc.

Lent, however, has developed a bit of a gloomy reputation. After all, this is a season of self-sacrifice. For some, it is about eating meat on Fridays and giving up a favorite food and/or activity for 40 days: a joyless emphasis on sin and sacrifice. For others, it is a ritual without foundation in Scripture: a dead ritual.

I will address that second perspective first, before responding to the other one. Anybody who cares to observe life will notice that we humans are creatures of habit who gravitate towards rituals. This is true in all areas of life. Gravitating toward ritual is not the same as being ritualistic (if, by that term, one thinks of a person engaging in rituals mindlessly). The following is an example from the world of sports that illustrates this.

Hockey’s Stanley Cup Final is a classic example of ritual in action. We may not think of it as a religious ceremony, but it has many features of one. At the end of any Stanley Cup Finals series, when one team has won their fourth game, the two teams line up at center ice to shake hands. They skate down a line and shake hands with each of their opponents. Sometimes they embrace in a “man hug”; two guys who pummeled each other with their sticks and fists one period ago may suddenly look like the best friends in the world.

Next, a red carpet is rolled out onto the ice, and a pair of caretakers carry the Stanley Cup out for the award ceremony. The NHL’s Commissioner then presents the trophy to the winning team’s captain. He raises the Cup over his head, skates a lap around the ice, and usually kisses the side of the cup. Next, he hands it off to another player. The selection of “player #2” is usually quite significant: it may be a veteran leader who has finally won the Cup after many years in the NHL, or a player who made significant contributions to his team’s success in the series. He repeats the lap around the ice routine. This continues until every player on the team has had a chance to hoist the Cup, kiss it, and skate a lap around the ice.

My point in sharing this is twofold. First, it definitely shows all the marks of a ritual. You know what is about to happen. Second, I have never seen any NHL player complain about having to take part in this ritual. Not a single player who hoists the cup skates around nonchalantly, looking like he would rather go back to his hotel room before Leno comes on the air. Every player–no matter how bruised, beaten, and exhausted he may be–goes through this ritual with joy and enthusiasm. He has worked and waited for years to reach this moment, and he will relish it for a lifetime. They do not view it as an “obligation,” but as a dream come true.

The issue with any ritual is not whether it is a ritual or not. The problem is when we approach it with a negative attitude. Hockey players do not think of it as a ritual when they hoist the Cup. Newlyweds do not usually think of their honeymoon as a “dead ritual with no biblical foundation”; OK, I am sure somebody somewhere must have thought that, and I would be curious about how the marriage turned out.

We should apply this perspective to any ritual in the church. All churches have post-biblical rituals, even those who claim that they follow only the Bible. No matter what church you attend, I am sure you have an order of worship; most likely, that order is found nowhere in Scripture (you cannot find a passage that tells you the exact point in a service when the offering should be collected). Yet, if someone decides to revamp the order of worship, there is usually an outcry: “What is wrong with the way we did it before?”

The rituals are not bad in themselves, but they can become a problem when we focus on them instead of their meaning or purpose. NHL players do not mind the Cup ritual because they are not focused on the routine of carrying a 35-pound piece of metal around on the ice; they are focused on celebrating their achievement. Likewise, Lent can become a boring, tedious ritual of torture if our hearts are not in it.

So, in preparation for Lent, I offer the following suggestions to bring the joy of the Lord into the observance:

  • First, observe it as unto the Lord, not as a mere tradition or ritual. Observe Ash Wednesday, and every other day, as a day for the Lord. Abstain as a means of drawing closer to the Lord.
  • Recognize the purpose of Lent. This is a time when we reflect on our weakness and our need for a Savior. At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to rejoice that God has already given us a Savior, Jesus Christ. Those who have come to believe in Him are already forgiven.
  • Remember that Lent is not a matter of salvation. I have come to view it as a great way for the body of Christ to unite in fasting. Jesus did precede His teaching on fasting by saying “When you fast,” not if (see Matt. 6:16). However, He did not give specific dates that we must fast. Lent is a great, ready-made guideline. However, if you can find another meaningful way of working Lent into your walk with God, that is fine too.
  • Consider the purpose of fasting. Christians tend to fast for different reasons. While I try to schedule regular fasts, I often need a certain focus; “because it’s Friday” is the sort of reason-for-fasting that can easily become boring. One focus for me is based on 1 Corinthians 9:26-27: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control,lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Although it is not the only reason for fasting, I find that it is helpful as a means of learning and practicing self-discipline.
  • Likewise, we should approach Lent from a perspective of spiritual liberty.
  • This is not an area for judging others. I am not a “better Christian” because I give something up for Lent. On the other hand, those who choose not to observe Lent are not “better Christians” because they forego it. Lent, properly practiced, can be a great means of growing spiritually. However, it is not the only means.

In 10 days, we will receive ashes on our foreheads and begin our Lenten fasts. What will you give up for 40 days? Which spiritual disciplines will you take up or increase for those 40 days? Most importantly, what changes do you hope to see in your relationship with Christ as a result of this 40-day journey?

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