Living as faithful disciples of Jesus requires making a lot of judgment calls. We are called to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21), to “discern what is best” (Phil. 1:10). To see this process of discernment at work, consider the history of Lent—the traditional 40-day season (not counting Sundays) of preparation for Easter.
Our Recent Practice
Many congregations in the Christian Reformed Church today observe Lent—but in a way that seems unusual to most Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans. It is an approach already reflected in a 1933 editorial in The Banner, where longtime editor H.J. Kuiper described both an increase of interest in and opposition to observing Lent, then firmly concluded, “We believe both views are one-sided.”
Kuiper said no to the ancient idea that Lent should feature a lot of spiritual disciplines, like fasting. As Kuiper argued, if we strengthen our piety during Lent, aren’t we likely to become lax afterward? Aren’t we supposed to be “always excelling in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58)? Don’t Lenten obligations lead us to legalism?
At the same time, Kuiper said yes to the importance of a season of preparation for Easter, citing a longstanding Reformed practice of sermons on Jesus’ sufferings as a fitting approach.
For the past three generations, Christian Reformed congregations have typically been warm to sermon series on Jesus’ suffering and death, rather cool to too much emphasis on spiritual disciplines including fasting and prayer, and downright cold to other traditions that grew up around Lent: Mardi Gras parties, fish on Fridays, and setting aside the word “Alleluia” during Lenten worship (until Easter morning). This is why, for example, the 1987 Psalter Hymnal’s section on Lent focuses almost exclusively on Jesus’ suffering and death.
In part because of the limited historical information available to him, Kuiper gave no attention to another dimension of Lent: the link between Lent and baptism. As recent historical studies have shown, Lent came about as early church leaders were also saying yes and no to possible ministry practices in light of contemporary cultural challenges.
In A.D. 313 the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and made it legal—even preferable—for Roman citizens to become Christian. Suddenly the church had a lot of adult baptisms to celebrate!
But that created a challenge: How was the church supposed to ensure that people who wanted to be baptized were serious about Jesus? And what did the church need to do to shape these new Christian lives? Baptism alone was not enough. More was needed to form these new Christians as disciples of Jesus.
So the church developed a 40-day course of preparation for baptism—a time of Bible study, catechism study (that’s right—catechism study 1,200 years before John Calvin), and spiritual disciplines including prayer and fasting. This was a super-charged “40-day spiritual adventure” or “40 days of purpose” (both are modern riffs on an ancient idea). The idea was that during those 40 days believers should be either preparing for their own baptism or encouraging someone who was preparing for baptism.
Instead of a time for focusing only on the suffering and death of Jesus, Lent became about focusing on our union with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism. Romans 6:3-4 served as a theme text: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
In terms of doctrine, this put the emphasis not only on God’s gift of forgiveness (justification), but also on the gift of new life in Christ and the Holy Spirit (sanctification). Lent was a time for new and veteran Christians to live into—to “practice”—the basic moves of the Christian life: to deny oneself, to turn to Jesus, to put off gossip and bitterness, and to put on patience and compassion. Just as athletes need to drill key skills and musicians need to practice scales, so too Christians need to practice self-denial and self-giving love.
In other words, Lent was developed in what we now call a “missional context.” It was a pastoral innovation for a time much like our own, where vast numbers of people do not grow up in the church. Lent was the church’s way of saying yes to the free offer of salvation and no to cheap grace—baptism without discipleship.
By the time John Calvin came along, the memory of Lent as a season for shaping new Christians had long faded. Adult baptisms were rare. Just about everyone was baptized as an infant. The Lenten disciplines were still practiced, but they were often imposed by the church in a distorted way as a means of currying favor with God.
So Calvin said yes to the practice he felt his people needed—teaching built around the catechism. But he said no to the season of Lent as too hopelessly superstitious to be of help to his people.
What’s Best Today?
So how should we celebrate Lent today?
We need to join fourth-century pastors, John Calvin, H.J. Kuiper, and a lot of thoughtful contemporary Roman Catholic leaders who are studying the same history, in making wise choices that promote faithful discipleship. We, too, need to say both yes and no in response to particular challenges we face in our own ministry contexts.
In places where Lent is associated almost exclusively with legalism or superstition, Reformed Christians would be wise to follow Calvin’s lead and say no to Lent. Instead, perhaps pastors should lead congregations through reflections on the theme of “freedom in Christ.”
In other contexts there may be great wisdom in adopting Lent as an identifiable season of preparation for Easter. All of us need to sanctify our calendars and make clear that nothing in the winter and springtime of the year—not Valentine’s Day, not spring break, not March Madness, not even the hockey playoffs—is as important to our identity as Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In missional places, where we long for a lot of adult baptisms at Easter, there is a lot of wisdom in recovering the idea that Lent is not just about Jesus’ suffering and death, but also about our union with Christ in baptism. There may be great wisdom in intentionally practicing our new life in Christ with disciplines of prayer, fasting, and repentance—disciplines that are so life-giving that we plan on keeping them going long after Lent ends. After all, many of us live in cultures with too few—not too many—of these disciplines.
Sometimes we inherit from our spiritual ancestors settled answers to key questions. But often we inherit instead models for asking unsettling questions. How can we put Jesus at the center of how we mark time? How can we convey the beauty of baptismal identity to seekers and strengthen it for veteran believers? How can we practice disciplines in the Christian life without coming to trust in or be overly proud of those practices?
May God’s Spirit equip us with all “love and spiritual knowledge to discern what is best” (Phil. 1:10).