A parishioner sent me a copy of a statement against keeping Lent, declaring Lent to be a perversion of the true repentance and fasting to which Christians are called. We see these kinds of challenges every year but with the advent of social media, they are receiving wider attention. This response is intended to defend Lent as a holy season.
First the writer describes Lent as “the 40 day Catholic season of preparation.” I’m sure it would come as a surprise to our Orthodox brethren that they are observing a “Catholic season.” No, it is the universal Church’s season of preparation. Since the vast majority of the Church observes Lent, critiques of it come across like the boy in the marching band that complains that everyone else is out of step. Of course numbers do not determine truth, so we need to dig deeper. The anti-Catholic tone throughout the critique is regrettable given Jesus’ Prayer for unity in John 17.
Second the writer points out that “Lent” and “Ash Wednesday” are not in the Bible. “Bible” is not in the Bible. That argument proves nothing unless you are the kind of literalist that believes we can only do what is in the Bible, rather than the more biblical approach that we can do all things except what the Bible forbids. Paul points out that for the Christian “all things are lawful but not all things are profitable.” Thus if we find Lent profitable, then it is biblical to observe it (I Corinthians 10:23-33).
Third he says that when we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday that it is a violation of Jesus teaching on fasting. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18.
It seems like he has a point here. Jesus tells us to wash and we are putting ashes on our foreheads. Are we therefore disobeying Jesus? Let me answer that question with a question. When the critic of Lent fasts, is he disobeying Jesus if he does not put oil on his head because Jesus said to do that also?
This points out that Scripture must be interpreted and not just parroted (“if your eyes causes you to stumble, pluck it out”). Through proper interpretation we seek to understand the intent of the passage so that we are keeping the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law. Jesus’ point in this pericope is that we should not be overtly practicing our religion to gain the approval of man, but rather we should practice it privately for the approval of God. Earlier in Matthew 6:6 Jesus says when we pray we shouldn’t pray in the synagogues and street corners, we are to go into our room or closet and shut the door and pray to our Father in secret. So are we disobeying Jesus when we pray in Church? Are we wrong to pray anywhere except in our closet? And what if our closet doesn’t have a door to shut? Again, these texts need proper interpretation.
The issue according to Jesus’ teaching is our intent. What is our intent in receiving ashes? If we are doing it to gain the approval of man then we would be wrong to do it. But if we are doing it as a sign of our repentance then not only is it lawful but it is profitable to do. When my son was small we received ashes together and on the way back to our pew he said to me “Dad, I feel weird.” I whispered back, “You’re supposed to.” I think it was the first time he faced his own mortality and according to the Scriptures, that is how we gain wisdom.
It is important to add that we receive ashes as a Body and not just one person in Church drawing attention to himself, which would also violate Jesus’ teaching. But what does the world think when they see the signs of our repentance? Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16.
Fourth, he critiques Lent saying that it is wrong to give up eating certain foods because Paul says so in I Timothy 3:1-3. (So all you gluten free folks are going to hell!) This is a classic example of how you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say if you take it out of context. First of all there is a difference between a voluntary fast and requiring abstinence from certain foods. If you voluntarily give up meat for a season as a partial fast that is different from being forbidden to eat shellfish.
What is the context of Paul’s statement? “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”
Just before this passage Paul gives the qualifications of a deacon and just after it he elucidates on being a good servant of Christ. So this passage juxtaposes the true Church with a demon inspired apostasy. This abstaining from certain foods, like the forbidding of marriage, is referring to a permanent law of a cult. That has nothing whatsoever with the temporary fast of the Church.
Fifth he critiques the Church for designating 40 days for fasting and repentance when we should be repenting “all year round.” In this critique, he insults our intelligence. Of course we realize that we should be repenting “all year round” (even though there is not a specific verse in the Bible that tells us to repent “all year round”). But just as our Lord set 40 days apart for fasting and prayer, the Church declares a special season for it as well. In the end we are merely choosing to walk in the footsteps of our Master. How can that possibly be wrong?