So, we all do pancakes right? I mean, why on earth wouldn’t you? We don’t tend to need the excuse of pancake day, but we’re happy to use it and eat some pancakes too.
But Shrove Tuesday was supposed to lead into Lent. Except, we don’t really bother with Lent. We’re happy to scoff a load of pancakes, but we don’t tend to bother with a 40 day fast. We are quite happy breaking our non-fast with a load of chocolate at Easter though (again, who needs the excuse, right?)
But it bears asking, why don’t we bother with Lent? Here are a few reasons:
It’s not in the Bible
I guess, at heart, the question is whether it is something mandated in scripture. That doesn’t mean it is wrong for anybody else to follow it if they see fit, but it isn’t anything Jesus specifically commands us to do. Given that the Bible doesn’t demand it, we don’t feel compelled to do it.
It misappropriates the 40 days Jesus’ spent in the wilderness
It seems at least worth asking, why did Jesus spend 40 days fasting in the desert? Was it as an example for us to follow or was he doing something else? Two Old Testament characters fasted for 40 days – Moses and Elijah. It is no coincidence that these were the same two who appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration. Moses was the one who established covenant with Israel at Sinai in law and Elijah was the one who accused Israel of covenant-breaking, leading to the Israelite exile. Jesus was the one who established a new and better covenant than Moses and was the one who, though executing justice against his people like Elijah, bears their sin on their behalf. None of that is stuff that we are called to emulate or do.
The other bit of background is the 40 years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. Alongside associating himself with epoch-changing covenant shifts linked with Moses and Elijah, Jesus was re-enacting, as the true Israel, what the people of Israel did when they left Egypt. They had grumbled against God, they sinned and were unable to enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief. Jesus, by contrast, goes into the desert to achieve what Israel did not. He went specifically to be tempted by Satan and to trust in the Father in the way that Israel didn’t. He was going to accomplish what the people of Israel could not: full obedience. This is not something we are going to emulate, like some sort of deutero-Christs. We rest in the full obedience of Jesus on our behalf, something we are not going to emulate this side of the parousia.
If something is a hindrance, deal with it now
I have never fully grasped why we wait until certain times of the year to address serious issues. If we are addicted to our phones, it would seem important to deal with that as soon as you realise rather than waiting for lent. If you need to lose weigh, or exercise more, or whatever, just crack on and do it. There seems like something quite arbitrary about waiting around to fix something that needs sorting because it’s the time in the calendar to think about it. If the thing we are thinking about – and Lent was traditionally this – is bordering on sin (or, in reality, has well and truly crossed the line) I struggle with the sense behind waiting until Lent to deal with it. If we aren’t waiting until Lent to deal with those issues – and I would strongly urge you not to – it begs the question what the point of Lent then is?
It promotes the yearly and extra-biblical at the expense of the weekly and mandated
In a previous article I wrote on this subject, I said the following:
In my experience, two main types of people emphasise Lent: (1) church traditionalists; (2) experientialists. There are those who do it because that is what the church they’ve been part of has always done. There are others who emphasise Lent because they believe it is inherently beneficial to them as believers. In either case, it can tend to inculcate this roller-coaster experience of the Christian life. When the calendar places demands upon us to behave in certain ways, or to engage in certain disciplines, we almost see it as building us up and improving our spiritual experiences. It almost becomes the very act of self-sacrifice – regardless of what it is we’re sacrificing and why we’re doing it – that we see as somehow to our good.
But the repeated claims of Paul in Galatians, Colossians and parts of Philippians is that we need nothing other than Christ for spiritual fulfilment. We do not need special spiritual experiences, or to keep particular rules and disciplines, in order to find total spiritual fulfilment. Christ is all sufficient. Our joy comes from knowing Christ, our spiritual fulfilment comes from knowing Christ, our maturity comes through knowing Christ. It by being in relationship with Jesus, and knowing him through his word, that we become spiritually mature and fulfilled. Anything apart from that – no matter how it is spiritually dressed up or how often it appears in church tradition – is not required for us to live lives pleasing to God and for us to find complete spiritual fulfilment in Christ.
Now, we may say it is not required but it is harmless. But is it not required, it draws us away from what is more helpful. Instead of the weekly, routine means of grace whereby we share in the Lord’s Supper together, we remember Jesus’ death on our behalf and we examine ourselves in doing so – repenting of whatever needs to be repented of – we lean towards the yearly. Instead of focusing on the normal, weekly, biblically mandated gathering of God’s people for these things, it can draw us toward a yearly, extra-biblical view of them instead. In my view, that isn’t a great help to us.
So, you’ll hardly be surprised that this Baptist won’t be doing much for Lent. But, for these reasons, I think we are better off without it. Though, I’ll gladly keep the pancakes.