The History of Lent & the Lost Celebration

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I grew up going to a Lutheran school until 8th grade, and one of the highlights of the year was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent:  the 40 days leading up to Easter, which is a time of fasting and self-denial in preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday we would have chapel service and would get to walk to the front of the church and have ash put on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. Today as I was out around town, I noticed people with these ash crosses on their heads.

Lent is a tradition which predates all Christian denominations, but today is practiced mainly by Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, and Orthodox Christians. However, Lent is more and more popular among evangelical Protestants, some of whom long for connection to the rich history of Christian tradition. I ran across a plethora of articles today from sources like Relevant and Christianity Today recommending that evangelicals would benefit from the practice of Lent. I tend to be inclined this way myself: to appreciate and want to be connected to Christianity’s rich traditions and to embrace the meaningful symbolism.

However, I have changed my thinking in recent years about Lent in particular. In seminary I took a course about the history and development of Christian worship. Here’s what I discovered about the development of Lent:

In the earliest days of Christianity, the time recorded in the Book of Acts, it is clear that new converts to Christianity first came to faith and then were baptized. As time went on, Christians began to feel that it was important that not only faith precede baptism, but instruction also. So they began to require believers to go through a period of instruction in Christian doctrines (catechism) before they could be baptized.

Several early Christian writings indicate that new believers would be baptized on Easter, which from the earliest days of Christianity was the chief Christian celebration. One of these writings that mentions baptisms of new believers being practiced only on Easter is from Tertullian, who argues that baptism need not only be practiced on Easter.

The number 40 held special significance for the early Christians because of the significance of the number 40 in the Hebrew scriptures, and so the 40 days leading up to Easter were the days of preparation, instruction and consecration for those who were getting ready to be baptized on Easter.

Easter itself, for the first 400 years of the church, was a feast that did not last only one day, but which began on Easter Sunday and lasted for 40 days. During that 40 days, people were forbidden from fasting, as well as from kneeling when they prayed, as kneeling is a posture of contrition, and these 40 days were set aside for the express purpose of celebrating the new life, the forgiveness and the redemption that we have because Jesus rose from the grave. It was a 40 day season of joy.

But here’s what changed: in the 4th Century, paedobaptism (child or infant baptism) became the norm. Paedobaptism was already a practice of some churches before that; Tertullian, in his On Baptism (circa 200), mentions that some churches practiced it and others did not, but that it was becoming increasingly popular in his time.

The reasons for the rise of paedobaptism were:

  1. Questions about how those who were born into and raised in Christianity should be initiated into the faith, and how this relates to the Old Testament model of a people in covenant with God.
  2. The emergence of Christendom as Christianity had become the official and dominant religion of the Roman Empire, so to be a citizen of the Empire was equated with being “Christian” and it was presumed that everyone who was a citizen of the empire was a Christian.  This view prevailed throughout the medieval period in Europe and was perpetuated by the magisterial Reformers.
    (I have written more on the subject of Christendom here)
  3. The formulation of the doctrine of ‘original sin’ by Augustine of Hippo, which gave many people a rationale for baptizing infants. The reasoning was that since the Nicene Creed declares that there is ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’, that infant baptism remitted original sin (something Augustine did not teach, but which led to parents wanting to have their babies baptized as soon after birth as possible). Thomas Aquinas also taught that baptism removed the guilt of original sin; however, this teaching was rejected by Luther and other Reformers and is not held by all modern adherents of paedobaptism.

But here’s the issue that paedobaptism brought up in the church: If you baptize babies, then you can’t instruct them before you baptize them, because they’re infants… So what do you do with the 40 day period of consecration and preparation leading up to Easter? Hmm…
Here’s what they did: they decided to make this a time of all believers consecrating themselves to God in preparation for Easter, and catechism was moved to adolescence and paired with a confirmation of one’s faith/baptism.

So, here’s what you had at that point:  40 days of consecration to God before Easter – EASTER – 40 days of celebration of salvation and new life after Easter.

But then, guess what happened with time: We kept one 40 day observance and dropped the other. And which one did we choose? Not the celebration, but the consecration… and over time that consecration became more and more dour and focused on self-denial, penance and contrition.

James White writes:

It is perplexing why Christians have forsaken the season of rejoicing in exchange for the season of penance.

Particularly during the medieval period (and vestiges of this remain in our day in some places and to some degree) some Christians became more obsessed with the process of Jesus’ death – his “passion” – than with the purpose of his death.

Taking this into consideration, I am less inclined to celebrate Lent. I believe that I should consecrate myself to God every day. Romans 12:1 says – I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 

However, I do believe that the discipline of self-denial is healthy and very much needed for some people, and that setting apart a dedicated time of consecration is both biblical and good.

In the end it gets down to WHY you are practicing Lent. If it is a spiritual discipline through which you draw nearer to God by purposefully setting aside something in order to consecrate yourself in an amplified way for a particular time – then I think that is wonderful and would recommend that you do it.

No matter what – whether you practice it or not – please remember the history, and along with your 40 days of consecration, I encourage you to practice 40 days of dedicated rejoicing in the salvation and new life that Jesus made available to you.

Celebrating what He did for you should take precedence over focusing on what you do for Him.

 

2 thoughts on “The History of Lent & the Lost Celebration

  1. Amen to the last line. Fascinating post. Sometime I observe Lent and sometimes I don’t. I can be self-absorbed when giving something up for Lent, and Jesus doesn’t want our sacrifice, He wants our hearts. This can actually be a private and holy time, and I am inspired that people all over the world are joining in this season of both consecration and celebration together. I know that this should be a year-round practice, but it is so easy to loose focus, and this can be a time of inspiration and renewal. Thanks for sharing.

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