I was only eight years old the last time I remember my parents coming home from church on a Wednesday night with ash on their foreheads. The sights and smells and sounds from St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, left an early impression on me. But I ought not overplay my hand. The bulk of my childhood memories of faith come from “non-denominational”, charismatic churches. There was the “full gospel” church in Malaysia that I attended from ages 8-10, and again at ages 13-17. The three years in between can be accounted for by my family’s move from Malaysia to Portland, Oregon, where my parents attended a Bible college that was connected to another “non-denominational” church with Pentecostal leanings. When I was 17, I left Malaysia to return to the States to attend a university that was by all counts “charismatic”. Thankfully I had theology professors who represented various streams of the Body of Christ, from Anglican to Catholic to Reformed to Pentecostal. Finally, for the last 10 years I’ve served on staff at a large “evangelical”, “non-denominational” church that believes in the activity and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
THE GLORY OF THE HISTORIC CHURCH CALENDAR Needless to say, the notion of observing the historic Church Calendar was remote at best. It seemed like something “traditional” churches did, while the allegedly cutting edge churches followed the “leading of the Holy Spirit.” But I’m beginning to wonder if every church– even the ones that claim to order their year by the Spirit’s leading– has a calendar, an annual rhythm of sorts. In most of the non-denominational churches I’ve been in, there is the Small Group Kickoff in the Fall, a Festival for children involving candy and costumes that mysteriously lands on October 31st each year, there is a Christmas Pageant of sorts in early Winter, a Call to Prayer at the dawn of a new year, an Easter Outreach in the Spring, and then camps, conferences, and missions trips in the Summer. And it repeats in more or less the same manner each year. We have a Modern Church Calendar.
None of that is inherently problematic. Except when I began to compare it to the Historic Church Calendar. I realized that the Modern Church Calendar centers on what we are doing and invites God in while the Historic Church Calendar centers on what Christ has done and invites us to participate in His life, suffering, death, resurrection, and commission. One is about my activity, the other is about Christ’s; one is about the busyness of my pre-determined rhythms, the other is about interrupting my rhythms to bring my life into the cadence of Christ and His work. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost are occasions to stop our normal rhythms and begin paying attention to Christ and His work– His work on earth and His work at present through the Holy Spirit. Ironically, the Historic Church Calendar might do more to help us follow the leading of the Holy Spirit than the haphazard, self-focused, human-activity-driven events and programs that clutter the life of many non-denominational churches.
HOW DID LENT BEGIN? In the Old Testament both Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:7) seem to have had 40-day periods of fasting for the purpose of devoting undivided attention to God, preparing them for a special work. Jesus, on the precipice of beginning His ministry, fasted for 40 days in the wilderness where He was tested and proved ready to begin. As a result, when the church leaders in the mid-2nd century were preparing candidates for baptism, they required the candidates to undergo a 40-day period of reflection, examination, and preparation before they were baptized on Easter morning. As early as the turn of the 3rd century there began to be a more formalized period of repentance and reflection before Easter as evidenced by one of St. Iraneus’s letters to the pope, though it seemed to last 40 hours rather than 40 days. The various ways of observing Lent became more homogenous after Christianity became legalized in the early 4th century, and even more so after the Council of Nicea in 325AD, making it the 40-day period we are now familiar with. It was Pope Gregory the Great in the early 7th century who moved Lent from beginning on a Sunday to begin on a Wednesday (called Ash Wednesday) so that the Sundays during the Lenten season could be mini-Easters, or mini-feast days.
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE FOR LENT? The purpose of Lent is prayer, self-examination and repentance, sacrifices and acts of service in preparation for Easter. It’s main components, historically, have been fasting and prayer. Like any other occasion of fasting, the goal is to let go of things in our lives that are not inherently harmful or destructive in order to give our attention to Christ in a special way. It is a letting go of the good for the sake of the laying hold of the best that Christ has offered. For the great part of church history, Lent has been about dietary restrictions, with Sundays being the “feast days” where you get a brief reprieve.
It is a way to “know Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings“(Phil. 3:10-11), to share in it with Him, so that we might experience the life, the resurrection, of Easter in a fresh way. It is a way of preparing us to live in perpetual Easter– the life of Christ springing up anew in us as we lay down and let go of control and selfishness.
So, what should you give up? Whatever it is that you feel has more of a hold on you that it should, or simply anything that would represent a sacrifice, and the elimination of which would free up time and energy to focus upon Christ.
What am I giving up? This is hard to say: Twitter, Facebook, and blogging….for both the reasons above. So, starting on Wednesday, I’ll only tweet, Facebook, or blog on Sundays…if at all…until Easter. May you know Christ more deeply this Lenten season.