Our worldview is reflected in our customs. Our customs are reflected in our calendar. Therefore our worldview, in part, at least, is reflected in our calendar.
But our calendar is increasingly secular while retaining some remnants of Christianity. We still, for the most part, celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. That said, there are aggressive attempts to remove all traces of the memory of Christianity from our culture. Thanksgiving is becoming “turkey day.” Christmas is merely a season or holiday. Easter is about a bunny and new clothes.
Whereas this is happening in our general culture, it ought not to happen in our minds and hearts, individually or collectively.
In ancient Israel, the calendar was all about the story of God’s redemption. The church through the ages maintained a calendar as well. It is centered around the life of Christ: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, winter ordinary time, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, summer ordinary time and then back to Advent.
If our life is Christ, it follows that our life together is also Christ and it is thereby profitable to synchronize our life together around the life of Christ.
This is the period called Lent, approximately a 40 day period preparing for the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. Whereas Advent emphasizes the first and second coming of our Lord and our eager longing for His return, the emphasis in Lent is on repentance and renewal as we follow the life of our Lord on His journey to the Cross.
• It begins with Ash Wednesday reminding us from dust we came and dust we shall return, the curse of Adam is still with us.
• It is a time to consider what Christ has done for us in delivering us from the power of sin.
• It is a time for reflection and self-examination as to whether we have been believing the Gospel, out of which flows the grace that teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions, or whether we have been giving in to the pull of the flesh, the enticements of the world, and the deceptions of the devil. That is why this time is celebrated as a time of self-denial as preparation to be able to receive the glorious blessings that come with the story of the Resurrection.
Lent is a period of approximately 40 days. The number 40 in Scripture is the number of testing. In Noah and the flood it rained for 40 days. He waited 40 days after the ark came to rest. Moses was on the mountain for 40 days receiving the Law. Elijah hid from Jezebel for 40 days. The Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.
This doesn’t mean that it is only this period when we engage in self-denial or self-examination. It means that we discipline ourselves to think about the various aspects of our life together in Christ that is to be lived out every day of the year. At different times of the year there are different emphases about the life of Christ and our life together in Him so that we don’t forget.
There is, admittedly, a certain ambivalence when it comes to Lent.
Here is the superstitious aspect of it from my observation:
• The smearing of ashes on the forehead to indicate that one has entered a period of self-denial and fasting, belies Jesus’ injunction to “anoint your head and wash your face.”
• The dangerous association of meritorious good works, as defined by Roman Catholicism (e.g. The Treasury of Merit, Indulgences, etc.), with Lent belies what we read in the Savoy Declaration, “Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.”
• We must be careful that only the Scriptures bind the consciences of our people such that some might be unwilling to participate for whatever reason. Indeed we’ve already given people the freedom not to celebrate Christmas or have a Christmas tree in their house (Colossians 2:16).
That said, we already celebrate other aspects of the liturgical year (Advent, Christmas, Pentecost, etc.) and there is still a value in celebrating a period of time that would highlight events in the life of Christ and culminate in the celebration of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. The Old Testament holidays and feasts were the story and the reminder of God’s redemption. They even added one not prescribed in the Old Testament, that of Hanukkah (Feast of Dedication, John 12) and apparently Jesus was willing to participate in it.
The question is how do we celebrate Lent (which is an Old English word for spring) in a meaningful and edifying way so as not to engender superstition or legalism? Certainly various disciplines that amplify an awareness of the need to die to ourselves in the spirit of our Lord’s mind that “though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor,” would be helpful. Let each person decide what that might look like in his or her life. Whatever we do in this regard must be Word oriented to the end that it would be Word planted and lived out in our lives.