Ash Wednesday, February 22nd this year, kicks off the beginning of the tradition celebrated by many churches known as Lent. It is the forty day period (excluding Sundays) from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection Sunday that serves as a time of self examination. It is a time to remember our sinful nature, our need to repent and to ask forgiveness. It should also serve as a reminder of the glorious Gospel – that Christ has already paid the price for our past, present and future sins and that we are completely forgiven by the gift of faith in Jesus and the grace of God alone.
I confess, I am not a huge fan of the Lenten tradition observed by the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, although that was not always the case. The first Lent honoring church I attended rolled out a weekly series of gatherings fashioned on Richard Fosters book, Celebration of Discipline – The Path to Spiritual Growth. I was immediately caught up in the process of self examination, or so I thought, and was determined to supercharge my spiritual growth by excelling in each of the thirteen “spiritual disciplines” mentioned in the book before the forty days of Lent were up. The book’s table of contents served as my personal checklist to spiritual maturity. Meditation – check; Prayer – check; Fasting – OK maybe just a fast from breakfast to dinner today – check; Study – check; Simplicity – check; and the list goes on and on. Boy, was I becoming a “good Christian.”
I remember a friend asking me, “What are you going to give up for Lent? You have to give up something you really love in order to draw nearer to God.” That was easy. I had a nasty habit of feasting on a two pack of Hostess Cupcakes every day after lunch, and so I was determined to sacrifice my cupcake fix to God for forty days. This would be a serious test of my obedience. My reward for successfully completing the challenge was a box of 24 cupcakes, purchased right after Resurrection Sunday from the Hostess outlet in our town.
I was so proud of my obedience. While others had caved to their forsaken vices and struggled to keep just a few of the thirteen disciplines, I had become a master Pharisee! But, you see, that was the problem. My Lenten celebration made me more sinful, not less. It made me terribly proud and my actions were a works based mockery of the Gospel grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It became all about what I did for Jesus rather than what Jesus had done for me.
Lenten observances gone awry, as noted by my own experience, can trivialize the “heart” of the matter, which is to repent of sin and remember we are saved by the Gospel. Giving up cupcakes, donating the money you saved by not eating out, etc. are hardly representative of an introspective look at one’s own heart. Of course, the pendulum often swings too far in the opposite direction where introspection becomes morbid, leading to salvation despair and legalistic attitudes toward others. Christ’s grace was not cheap, should not be cheapened and needs to be remembered daily, not just for a period of forty days once a year. Every Christian is “good,” because we have been given the righteousness of Christ and our daily walks gets better only as we are being made by God into the image and likeness of Jesus. It is what Jesus has done, despite what we’ve done, and what He is doing in us through the Holy Spirit, that truly gives us reason for celebration.