This time of year I always seemed to get asked, “What do you think about Lent?”
After my initial (snarky) answer of, “I don’t,” I am happy to have the conversation the person wants to have. Perhaps it is because most people associate Lent with the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps it is because fasting isn’t a regular practice for most people, there seems to be a wide variety of opinions and thoughts regarding Lent.
As I mentioned in my last post, I have been doing a good bit of reading regarding the early Church lately. So I thought I would share a few bits of information, particularly from the pre-Roman Catholic days.
In the earliest days of the church, the disciples and apostles were spreading the Gospel fairly quickly. For those who believe and receive Jesus, the Gospel is a call to repentance, that is, turning back to the ways of our Creator God. As the Gospel spread through Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, repentance was a fairly easy topic to discuss. The people in those regions were familiar with Yahweh, the Law of God, and the prophets and writings that we call the Old Testament. When the disciples called people to repentance, there was a cultural understanding in the Ancient Near East of what it was that people were being called into: “that they should repent and turn to God, perform deeds in keeping with their repentance.” (Acts 26:20) For those with a Jewish background, those “deeds” had been taught to them from an early age. They were simply being called to perform those deeds through faith and not for salvation.
But what happens when the Gospel of Jesus is preached to a farmer in Gaul/France who has never heard the name of Yahweh or the Instruction that He gave His people? Romans tells us that creation itself reveals the Lord. So there are people who know God Is, they know that they are separated from God, and will receive the Good News with gladness. But they must be instructed in what it is that they are “turning back toward”.
The early church (as early as the 2nd century), did not have “lukewarm converts”. The stakes were too high. To become a Christian was a bad thing in the eyes of the Roman empire. So they considered the words of Jesus to “count the cost” very seriously. When someone heard the Gospel preached and received it with gladness, they were considered saved and would join the Church in corporate worship and fellowship. But, the church elders would hold off baptizing that new convert until they were educated in the ways of God. That is, until they were instructed into the life that a follower should live. This person was known as a “catechumen”.
A “catechism” is a series of statements of belief that many churches continue to use to this day. It is not scripture, but the statements are summaries of foundational doctrine intended to help someone remember the deep truths of Scripture. Many churches still use the Westminster Shorter (and Longer) Catechism as well as the Heidelburg Catechism. The New City Catechism was recently published and is a wonderful resource for personal and family study. Perhaps you can see how this progressed: A person receives Christ, they are taught the ways of God, catechisms were created as a teaching tool alongside Scripture itself.
Once a catechumen was educated in the ways of God (in general a one to three-year period), two final “trials” were given. The first, and most important, was the testimony of those in the community. They would give an account of the life transformation that they had seen in this new believer. This was the application of “A tree is known by its fruit.” (Matthew 12)
The second “trial” was an extended period of fasting. The early church generally baptized people one day a year: Easter Sunday. So to imitate the 40 days of temptation of Jesus, catechumen would fast for 40 days prior to their baptism. This was the “final test” to prove your devotion and faithfulness. It was serious business, because once you were baptized, you were also able to partake of the Lord’s Supper with the church. (In the early church, unbaptized people were dismissed from the assembly when it came time of the Lord’s Supper. They couldn’t even watch…) This is where we see the seeds of what we call “Lent”: a 40-day period of fasting to prove one’s devotion to God. It was not a work that obtained salvation, the person was already saved. It was a fruit or evidence of a person’s sincerity of heart, transformation of life, and dependence on God.
As with most good things, the practice quickly became “ritualized” and “standardized” to become a “law” rather than a fruit.
This is what most people think of when they think of Lent, or Confirmation, or other similar practices. But in reality, the practice started as a way to maintain purity in the Church of Christ, to hold baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the highest regard, and to educate new converts in the ways of God. Those seem like fairly worthy efforts.
Should we observe Lent?
In its earliest days, we do not see baptized believers re-participating in that specific period of fasting. They had already been tested. But we certainly see believers fasting whenever they felt impressed to do so by The Spirit. So the question to ask is not, “Should we observe Lent?” The question to ask is, “Does my lifestyle demonstrate that I know the ways of God and have I proven my faithfulness by bearing fruit?”
You are free to observe Lent as a means of drawing nearer to the God whom you already trust. Do not observe Lent as an attempt to save yourself. Lucky for us, only Jesus can do the saving.