We are four weeks into the season of Lent, with Easter a few weeks away. Depending on what church you go to, that may or may not mean much to you. Yet Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar, going back at least to Irenaus in the 2nd century. And though Lent’s purpose was, and still is, self-examination, penitence demonstrated by self-denial as we look forward to Easter, and a special opportunity for alms-giving (helping the poor), Reformed churches long frowned upon Lenten practices such as giving up meat, out-and-out fasting or other self-deprivation.
It might, then, surprise you to know that John Calvin himself recognized a proper observance of Lent, one that flows from a heart of gratitude to God for “so great a salvation.” But Calvin was concerned about the derailed intent of the Lenten practices he knew in the Roman church, “lest any superstition creep in, as has previously happened to the great harm of the church” (Institutes, 4.12.19-21). Calvin wanted to help ex-Catholics – pretty much everybody in his congregations – to evaluate their familiar church traditions in the light of Scripture (notes a recently updated biography of the Reformer by Michael A. Mullett).
In speaking of how to observe Lent, Calvin first quotes Joel 2:13 (“Rend your hearts and not your garments ”), then he cites Augustine regarding avoiding a Lenten fast as a work of merit. Calvin further talks of legalism and spiritual pride, concluding that the Roman church’s observance of Lent in his day was enforced with “wicked laws” which “bind consciences with deadly chains.”
More than habit
Calvin’s words have to be seen in historical context, amidst a host of unbiblical excesses that had become entrenched over centuries in the existing church. Yes, we know all that, you might say. And in our own day, we understand that giving up coffee or chocolate, even fasting a day or several days a week for the five weeks of Lent, volunteering in a soup kitchen, donating winter coats to the Salvation Army or writing cheques to Christian ministries aren’t going to gain us salvation. If we do engage in any of those particular activities during Lent we do them to focus us mentally and spiritually on Christ’s great sacrifice for us. Many Christians find that kind of Lenten self-discipline helpful. However, many others have difficulty adopting such practices without feeling like they’re simply “going through the motions.”
It’s not too late this year to think about all this, as it can also apply to the observances and traditions we adopt at Easter as well, and throughout the church year. In my experience (I like to think Calvin would concur), the best way to ensure that any Lenten or other faith-related observance we adopt comes from heartfelt gratitude to God, is done to focus us on Christ and thus becomes beneficial to us in the long run, is accompanying that observance with careful Bible reading and prayer; with even more Bible immersion and prayer than is normal for us. In fact, if some of us don’t read the Bible or pray as often and as systematically as we would like or know we should, we could begin by asking God to strengthen our resolve to do that during this last week of Lent, and then to maintain it throughout the year.
God will graciously answer that prayer. He wants us to know him ever better, and we know him first of all through his Word. In it, he has promised that he will draw near to those who draw near to him. That’s a stunning promise! His Word is infused with the Spirit, still: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” And if we are open to the Spirit’s prompting in it we will never merely go through the motions.
On my heart imprint your image, blessed Jesus, king of grace,
that life’s troubles nor its pleasures ever may your work erase;
let the clear inscription be: “Jesus, crucified for me” –
is my life, my hope’s foundation, all my glory and salvation. —Thomas H. Kingo, 1634-1703
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