Ash Wednesday and Lent: Empty Tradition or Full Opportunity?

I remember the first time I heard about Lent in someway that wasn’t in reference to Roman Catholicism. A Baptist classmate of mine at Houston Baptist University had decided that he was going to give up Mountain Dew for Lent. What struck me first was that this was a big sacrifice for Thomas, as he drank Mountain Dew with regularity.

What surprised me secondly, was that he was doing something for Lent.

I was familiar with the season of Lent that led up to Easter. 40 days (technically 46 if you count the Sundays as well) of fasting that I had always associated with the Roman Catholic church. I knew when Lent started only because I saw Mardis Gras coverage on the news, or saw “King Cakes” in the grocery stores.

This was a foreign practice to me. Something strange and different that never appealed to me, or seemed to have nothing to do with the form of Christianity I was raised in.

This stayed the same until I attended Truett Seminary and discovered a whole new world of opportunities for worship and Spiritual growth. I learned about the rhythms of people’s lives in the church – birth, life, death, and expectation of Christ, but in hallway conversations and class discussions I also grew attuned to the rhythms of life in the church calendar – which is also oriented around birth, life, death and the expectation of Christ.

Church Calendar rather than “Hallmark” Calendar

First of all, I think all Christians would agree that the Church runs in a way that is counter to culture. We do things differently. Christians give of their time, give of their money, and give of their worship (typically on Sunday mornings) in ways that are not normal for the world.

Growing up, a Sunday morning rhythm came naturally to me. While others were sleeping in, sleeping it off, or enjoying lazy Sunday morning routines, I went along with my family to our place of worship. But on a yearly calendar, our church congregations and family tended to follow the “Hallmark” calendar more than anything else.

We celebrated American Independence, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, sometimes Father’s Day, and the of course the two Church/Hallmark crossover days of Easter and Christmas.

What I didn’t know was that if there was a calendar in the Church with lots of strange days, but also a few seasons. Days and seasons like:

Advent Season – 4 Sundays of expecting Jesus – particularly His second coming
Christmas Day – Celebrating the birth of our savior
Christmas Season – The 12 days celebrating Christmas starting Christmas day
Epiphany – Celebrating the Gospel’s reach to the wise men (thus to the whole world)
Shrove Tuesday – The last feast before the time of fasting
Ash Wednesday – A day to remember our mortality and the lostness of creation
Lent – 40 days of fasting modeled after Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness
Palm Sunday – The triumphant entry of Christ
Holy Week – The week of remembering the last week of Jesus’ life
Maundy Thursday – Practicing foot washing and remembering the last supper
Good Friday – Mourning the death of our beautiful savior
Holy Saturday – Knowing the silence of the grave (even if only temporarily)
Easter Sunday – The great celebration of life and Resurrection
Easter Season – 40 days of celebration remembering Jesus’ work after the resurrection
Pentecost – Celebrating the birth of the church and the work of the Holy Spirit
Ordinary Time – Season of the simple and ordinary (our own lives are also full of “ordinary” time)

This calendar surprised me with unfamiliar worship practices and traditions.

Empty or Full Tradition?

But what was at first strange, foreign, and seemed like “empty tradition” soon became valued and appreciated as my understanding grew. I started to see how the rhythm of the church calendar was intentionally out-of-sync with the Hallmark calendar. This reminded me of the ways in which the Christian life is also intentionally out of step with the world.

During seminary I led and worshiped with Baptist churches that followed many of these calendar seasons and days. Sometimes informally, sometimes formally, and sometimes not at all. In this time I began to see how this experience of the Christian faith better prepared me for the rhythms of life.

I saw the value of not simply going from the triumphant entry on Palm Sunday to the enthusiastic celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. I saw that this Church calendar reflected my understanding that the Christian life was not one day of triumph and celebration after another, but that the Christian life was as full of dark and sad days of sacrifice and struggle, as well as intense beautiful celebrations.

In short, I found that my faith matured and increased in compassion, love, and balance. Many of these worship opportunities drew me closer to God in ways I had never experienced.

Ash Wednesday

My first Ash Wednesday service was surreal. I had never been in a worship service so thoroughly focused on sin and repentance. It was strange because it was new – not because it was lacking in value or meaning.

And when I walked the rest of my day with a cross of ashes on my forehead there was no mistaking that I was a Christian. No matter who saw me, and no matter how many times I saw myself in a mirror, it was obvious that my faith was not something that could be missed.

That it was also something made of ashes (the leftover byproduct of heat and light) and in the shape of a cross (the Roman instrument of torture and execution), also kept me grounded in the life of sacrifice and challenge that often is the Christian life.

My heart is full each Ash Wednesday. Full of the weight of the world’s sin, and my own. Full of the awareness of just how far from God we were/are. Full of the awareness of the sacrifice of Christ.

Lent

And beginning with Ash Wednesday many choose to partake of certain Lenten practices – this time of “giving up” or “taking on”. It is a time of being uncomfortable for the purpose of allowing God to form and shape one’s spirit. Some give up something to eat, or give up a comfortable entertainment, and others might take on a season of volunteering more, reading a particular devotional book, or doing some other Spiritually significant daily practice.

Over the years I have tried giving up a few things for Lent, and my wife and I have encouraged our kids to do the same.

One year we as a family gave up pizza
Another year our three boys gave up their favorite LEGO toys for Lent
I have taken on various devotional practices and regular times of prayer
I have several times given up hot showers, red meat, sodas, candy, etc.
My wife has read a particular book, or given up social media
Together we have had regular family prayer times

Each Lent I seek to discern in what ways I can learn about my faith through being a little more uncomfortable than normal. In setting something down voluntarily so that each time I crave it, miss it, or wish I had it, it is a time to pray and seek God.

This is the point of Lent. To have moments throughout the day when, instead of doing our normal thing, we replace it with a God thing.

Instead of drinking a Coke, I say a prayer and consider those who lack clean water.
Instead of a hot comfortable shower I remember being on the mission field with only cold showers, and am thus prompted to pray for all those who serve Christ in missions
Instead of the convenience of pizza, we pray for those lacking in food security

In these ways and more we are not simply following “empty traditions” that Baptists and others have long rejected, but rather we are participating in full and spirit-forming worship practices. Ways of worshiping, growing, and praying that we often need.

Your Opportunity

This season of Lent may be an opportunity for you to seek God in a new way.

Perhaps you will try to go to an Ash Wednesday service at a local congregation, or in your own congregation.

Maybe you will give up a food or entertainment comfort.

Or perhaps you might try to take on a particular practice – like daily Scripture reading and devotional practice like you would find in Truett Seminary’s 2017 Lenten Devotional Guide.

Whether you feel led into something this year or not, we pray and hope that you will continually be formed by Christ, and continue to learn how to connect to Christ in vibrant and life-giving ways.

May you be challenged in your faith and may you be strengthened in your faith. Amen

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