Will you practice Lent in 2018? I have practiced in the past; however, it’s admittedly been a few years.
To be honest, Lent (and a strict Christian calendar in general) is something that I struggle to reconcile with apostolic teaching from Paul, who wrote,
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 2:16-3:4).
Paul seems to be instructing that asceticism and calendars are overrated compared to Christ and underwhelming in the battle against the sinful nature. Then, he compels readers to set their minds on their union with Christ in the experience of the gospel; that is, think on heavenly accomplishments rather than earthly shadows for power in the spiritual life.
Before my theological education, I found this liberating. During my education, knowledge of church history, extra-biblical Christian texts, and exposure to a variety of Christians in various traditions caused me to wonder if I was missing out on my historical heritage – I didn’t want to act as if my Christianity was the only Christianity that there ever has been. Having been removed from the academic environment for about 7 years now, I’ve felt pulled in two directions – one existing in my knowledge of the historical expression of the Christian, spiritual life and one existing in my simple, post-conversion liberty found only in Christ and his gospel.
I imagine that some may respond in saying the historical liturgy aims to image the gospel and to orient all of life around it. I can see that, but I can also see how it possibly focuses the mind on shadows of the gospel rather than on the reality itself.
When I turn to the Scriptures for clarity, the only “icons” we’re given are the Eucharist and Baptism. We weren’t given any specific fasts or specific festivals or holy days. In fact, this 2013 article by Nicholas V. Russo casts all kinds of doubt on any solid proto-Nicene Lent tradition. At the most, one can say that the early church employed fasts and certain days as tools to prepare catechumens for Baptism. These lesser things served the people and the true apostolic ordinances.
Today marks the beginning of Lent for many of my brothers and sisters. My hope for them is that they aren’t only living in the shadow but also in the reality of the union we share in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have died. Our life is hidden in Christ with God. I want to know more of this death and life with which I have been united. I’m just not certain that Lent is the way. I’ll remember my Baptism; I’ll sit at the Lord’s table, I’ll hear the word of redemption in Christ; I’ll gaze upon the Head of the church, and try to yield to his Spirit, whose aim it is to conform me to Christ.