Evangelical Christianity in the West is highly praised (and rightly so) for the high view of grace it holds out. But what do we lose if, in our high view of grace, we have garnered a low view of the spiritual disciplines? Have we, amid our “once saved, always saved” mantras, lost a holy sense of discipline?
Today is the first day of Lent, a season that is not often celebrated in Evangelical churches in the West. The season rolls around the calendar again, and we are almost always surprised to see it coming. It startles us, we sigh, and then roll our eyes because we just didn’t want to think about it this year. Thinking about Lent makes us Evangelicals feel simultaneously guilty and apathetic; on the one hand, we feel as if we should somehow participate in this historical discipline, but, on the other, we feel as thought we just shouldn’t have to. And so, we arm ourselves with language of “grace enough,” and go about our business, dismissing anyone who thinks we should give up coffee for a month (don’t even talk to me about actually fasting).
Even as we roll our eyes, there it is on the Church calendar: Lent is here. And we, as Evangelicals, often need to be reminded of the blessing and responsibility embedded in the invitation to observe the season of Lent.
Lent embodies our longings, teaching us to long after the right things.
We live in a fast-paced culture of instant-gratification, and the Church in the West is no exception. We don’t wait for very much, do we. We have fast food and quick commutes, so it’s no wonder we just can’t handle it when asked to wait in line at the DMV. Waiting is foreign language to us, and the words of “not yet” fall on our ears with confusion and impatience.
But the season of Lent is a time to walk the 40 days in the wilderness with Christ, to sit in his hunger and his longing for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Lent is a season to sit before our God like Moses on Mt. Sinai, and wonder when He will lead us into His promised Land. And, moreover, Lent is a time to anticipate the cross, to sit in the deathly hour when darkness swallowed up the Son of Man and to grieve the time between the tomb and the resurrection. Lent offers us a pause, a “not yet” phrase that we carry in our hearts with sorrow and longing. These forty days afford us the time – yes, forty days – to ache for the resurrection and the renewal of all things. As a people who are rarely hungry, rarely asked to wait, Lent serves as an embodiment of good and right longings as we remember the Christ who came and ask for Him to come again.
Lent is a participation in the universal and historic church, which is both our privilege and our responsibility.
I was recently talking with a woman in my Bible study about Lent. “We don’t practice Lent,” she said with eyebrows furrowed in confusion; “we’re not Catholic.” But Lent is not exclusively Catholic, as we Evangelicals would do well to remember that we have both the privilege and responsibility to identify with the universal and historical Church. Unfortunately, we have garnered a reputation for what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery,” feeling as though we, in our place in the timeline of humanity, somehow have a corner on theology and practice. We must do the time consuming and painstaking work of placing reminders for our Evangelical selves that our creeds are not our property but our inheritance. We have been brought to the table of faith by those who came before (yes, Protestants and Catholics alike), and have been extended an invitation to participate in the Church that spans generations and national boundaries.
Lent is just one of many opportunities we have to embrace our universal and historical identity as Christians. The season of Lent affords to us a means and manner of participation in historical Christianity. We may disagree on whether or not to baptize infants, if women can be pastors, or on images of Jesus in worship, but we can all agree on the cross. The cross of Christ is the center post of all expressions of Christianity; it unites us, unifies us, gathers us. Lent offers us a communal season of worship around the cross, and we have both the privilege and responsibility of participation.