Thursday, 7 February 2013

Why Lent?

Some of us may remember a time back in our childhood when Lent was seen as something that only Catholics and the more full-on sort of Episcopalians / Anglicans did.  In recent decades, things have changed so that Lent is now something that is part of the life of almost all Christian churches

Why Lent?

In the early centuries of the Christian Church, most Baptisms took place at Easter.  Most candidates for Baptism would have been preparing for their Baptism for a few years, in terms of learning about the life and teachings of Jesus, and the beliefs and practices of the Christian church.

The candidates for Baptism entered a far more intense period of preparation for a number of weeks immediately prior to their Baptism at Easter.  This preparation included sessions of more deliberate study, prayer, and meditation, as well as abstinence from some foods and periods of fasting from all food.  This period of intense spiritual preparation was the beginning of what we now call the season of Lent.

After a while, it was not only the candidates for Baptism who wished to participate in this time of preparation.  Other Christians chose to observe this period of preparation as well, both to support those preparing for Baptism and in the interest of their own spirituality.

But, … as this was happening, the practice of Christian baptism was changing.  Christian parents increasingly chose to present their children for Baptism, even children as young as babies.  There were a number of reasons for this change in practice.  Some reasons were good, and some were not-so-good.
  • A good reason for this change in practice was that parents who identified with the Christian faith wanted to decisively identify their children with the same faith as they had embraced.  This is still the main reason why most mainstream churches baptise babies to his day.
  • A less positive reason for this change was the (in my opinion, unfortunate) development of the theology of “original sin” through the influence of St. Augustine.  Because of this doctrine, there was a growing belief among Christians that unbaptised babies were somehow “damned”.  Thus there was increasing pressure for churches to baptise babies as soon as possible after their birth.
After a while, the majority of Christian baptisms involved the children of people who were already Christians themselves, rather than adult converts.  The baptisms took place throughout the year, as the children were born.  Fewer and fewer Baptisms took place at Easter.

But, … even though the weeks leading up to Easter were no longer a time of pre-baptismal preparation, most Christians still continued to observe the pre-Easter time of study, prayer, meditation, abstinence, and fasting.  By this stage, Christians were beginning to observe Lent, in the way we think of Lent today. 

In medieval times, Lent was a time when people became far more austere in their diet, abstaining not only from meat and alcohol, but also from dairy products and from eggs. 
  • The observance of “Pancake Day” on the day before the beginning of Lent was a way of using up the items that couldn’t be eaten during Lent. 
  • The idea that fish could be eaten during times of abstinence from meat developed in the late Middle Ages, at a time when the nations of Europe were trying to assist their fishing industries and asked the church to encourage people to eat more fish.  So the Church “eased” the rules of abstinence and kept fish on the menu on days when the eating of meat was discouraged.
As well as abstaining from some foods, the Lenten practice in the Middle Ages also included days of complete fasting from all food (unless you were very young, very old, very sick, or very pregnant).  As well, the time-honoured custom of “giving … [something] … up for Lent” began in the Middle Ages and has continued until the present day.

As well as a greater austerity in people’s lifestyles, Lent also involved a greater austerity in the church’s worship.  The more joyous aspects of worship were minimized.  The more solemn and sombre aspects of worship were magnified.  To give one example, the word “alleluia” was omitted from use in worship during Lent (and still is in many churches).  Thus, so many Easter hymns are dominated by the word “alleluia”, a word that was silent and unused in the church for the previous forty days. Essentially, Christian worship became much more “minimalist” during Lent. 

After the Protestant Reformation, most of the "Protestant" churches kept Lent in some form or other, but for the most part, Lent soon became a non-event in many "Protestant" churches, other than the Anglicans or Lutherans, until fairly recently.  (I’ll say now that I believe that this neglect of Lent in many "Protestant" churches was to the spiritual detriment of the worshippers.)  I have two theories as to why Lent was neglected for so long in many "Protestant" churches. 

First of all, as I said earlier, traditionally, “Lent … involved a greater austerity in the church’s worship.  The more joyous aspects of worship were minimized.  The more solemn and sombre aspects of worship were magnified.”  This creates an extra problem when we consider the worship during Lent within the "Protestant" churches.  For most of the centuries since the Reformation, "Protestant" worship was fairly “minimalist” throughout the year, with very infrequent communion, and with a lengthy sermon being the central point of the worship.  Even on the great days of celebration such as Christmas and Easter, "Protestant" worship had become so generally austere, solemn, and sombre that an observance of Lent as such was redundant.  In the typical "Protestant" church (including the Uniting Church’s three parent churches), as far as the style of worship was concerned, Lent lasted the whole year long.

Similarly, in terms of lifestyle matters, traditionally, Lent was a time of greater austerity in people’s personal lives.  This became a problem from about the middle of the nineteenth century when many of the "Protestant" churches in the English-speaking countries began to be associated with the more extreme wing of the temperance movement.

From about the middle of the eighteenth century, temperance societies originally developed to encourage moderation and intelligence in people’s consumption of alcohol.  During the nineteenth century, more extreme temperance groups were founded which promoted abstinence from alcohol – rather than moderation in the use of alcohol.  From the nineteenth century, a growing number of church leaders were promoting abstinence – rather than moderation – as the preferred Christian stance toward alcohol.  Beginning with the Quakers, but also including Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists (in particular), and others, many of the "Protestant" churches were associated with this more extreme stance toward temperance in the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries.

This led to a problem re the observance of Lent.  If people assumed that their churches were expecting them to abstain from alcohol as part of being a member in good standing, it would be very difficult then to add, “Oh, and in addition to giving up the booze year-round, would you also cut down your meat consumption during Lent and possibly think of giving up chocolate for Lent?”  For many, that would really be stretching the friendship.  And anyway, the expectations re refraining from alcohol gave a Lenten character to the whole year.  As I said earlier in terms of worship, in the typical "Protestant" church (including at least two of the Uniting Church’s three parent churches), as far as lifestyle expectations were concerned, Lent lasted the whole year long.

Please note:  these comments about the relationship of the de-emphasis upon Lent in some churches with the worship styles and with the influence of the temperance movement in these churches are only my theories, but they’re theories I’m sticking with until proven otherwise.

In any event, times have changed.

In terms of worship, we today are heirs of the ecumenical movement.  "Protestants" and Catholics have influenced each other’s styles of worship.  Catholics today worship in the language of their local community rather than in Latin, and sing hymns as part of their worship.  "Protestants" today celebrate Holy Communion more often than in the past (not as often as we should, but more often than we did), have far shorter sermons than in the past, and have a far less “gloomy” style of worship generally than in the past. 

In terms of lifestyle, the temperance movement no longer has the influence on the "Protestant" churches it once had.  There is no longer the expectation that a practicing member of a church would automatically abstain from alcohol.  I know some teetotalers who are members of the Uniting Church, but not many.  Most of them are non-imbibers for predominantly non-religious reasons.  The link between church membership and year-round personal austerity is no longer there.  

Given these two changes, it is no longer the case now in "Protestant" churches (as it was a few decades ago) that people feel that “We don’t really need Lent in our church;" or that, “For us, it’s Lent all year round.”

Thus, thankfully, churches such as the Uniting Church have been re-discovering Lent in recent decades.

And, for those who’d like to “give something up for Lent”, I have two suggestions.
  • The first is to take something essentially innocent, and give it up for Lent, with the intention being that (when Lent is over) we can enjoy what we gave up with a greater sense of thanksgiving to God.  Many Christians choose to do this with some favourite treat, such as chocolate.  This is a classic way for some Christians to “do” Lent.  Can I say, please, if you know someone else doing this for Lent, be supportive.  It really isn’t funny to wave a chocolate bar under the nose of someone giving up chocolate for Lent.  This is not how to be Christ’s person to your neighbour.
  • The second idea is to take something harmful, and to give it up permanently … beginning with Lent.  Perhaps this Lent can be your time to give up smoking.  Perhaps this Lent can be your time to seriously challenge some long-standing racial, religious, or cultural prejudice, such as your prejudices against Indigenous people, or other people of colour, or Jews, or Muslims, or Catholics, or LGBT+ people.
During Lent, we all have opportunities to renew our lifestyle in the light of our faith and, by so doing, to prepare ourselves to enter more fully into the experience of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter.

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