Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent
The Western liturgical calendar was largely abandoned in the Protestant Reformation, especially by the Radical Reformers and later Believers’ Church groups, including my own tradition, the Baptists. The more “low church” one’s tradition, the more likely that Christmas and Easter were the only holy days left in your liturgical calendar. (I can still remember one Baptist minister who said his church wouldn’t be doing anything on Easter that was different from any other Sunday because they ALWAYS celebrated Christ’s resurrection.)
The Medieval Church NEEDED huge reform, including reform in worship. And the desire of Reformers, Puritans, Anabaptists, Baptists, and others to scrape away encrusted ritual and return to forms of worship more directly patterned on the New Testament was laudable. But count me among those who think that, in many cases, we threw out the baby with the bathwater. The liturgical renewal movement, including the forging of a common church calendar and a common lectionary, has been one of the great gains of the Ecumenical movement. Those Baptists who have been part of various national ecumenical bodies (e.g., the National Council of Churches in the US) and/or the World Council of Churches, have usually participated in this liturgical renewal. The American Baptists, the Alliance of Baptist, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, are in this conciliar ecumenical movement. The Baptist groups which have not participated (including the SBC, the CBF, the Baptist General Conference, the Conservative Baptist Association, the North American Baptist Conference, etc.) have generally stood apart from this renewal–although individual congregations in each of these groups have participated.
Recently, several Baptists from my part of the world (the U.S. South), have written some strong arguments for observing the 40 days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, today. Here is one such article by Darrell Pursiful, and another by Beth Felker Jones. But I wanted to explain my own journey to the common Western liturgical calendar and then my personal reasons for observing Lent (and I’m lucky to belong to a Baptist congregation that observes Lent, too). (Note: There is tragedy and brokeness in my speaking of the Western calendar–for it points to the great schism between the Eastern churches and the Western churches. Much healing is needed there, but that is a subject for another time. UPDATE: I learn from Pursifal that this year, the Eastern and Western churches both celebrate Easter on 04 April–which means we’ll also have the same Lents, Holy Weeks!)
First, I was not raised Baptist, but Methodist. Now, if the United Methodists were participating in the ecumenical liturgical renewal (as they certainly are now) as far back as my childhood in the ’60s, I was not aware of it. But we at least observed enough of the church calendar to have services all through Holy Week. When I became a Baptist, I found no such services and we went straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday with nothing in between. This made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why. One day, a Catholic theologian friend of mine said to me, “The problem with you Protestants is that you raise Jesus from the grave too soon!” Well, I don’t know whether that was fair to all Protestants, but it certainly fit my experience with Baptists! Going from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of RESURRECTION without any observance of abandonment and betrayal, suffering and death, was false to the gospel and it led to a triumphalism–a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross, to use Luther’s terminology! It gave us the “sweet Christ,” when our suffering world cries out for the “bitter Christ,” (Thomas Müntzer) of Gethsemane and Golgotha. So, when I first began to be a student pastor, myself, I made sure to include services on Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. (The Church might need to add to this to tell the Story correctly. We may need to add a “Confrontation Monday” that focuses on Jesus’ nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, too! And a Teaching Tuesday and Interrogation Wednesday, perhaps, as well.)
Building on that recovery of Holy Week, this then-young preacher discovered the need for the liturgical calendar: It teaches us Christians to narrate our lives according to the Christian Story: Advent teaches us to await the Christ (which also points to the Second Advent, we await as well) and prepare for his gracious coming. Christmas, despite its very maculate origins and borrowings from various pagan traditions, or, perhaps BECAUSE of that, helps us to celebrate fully the Incarnation, the En-Fleshing of God’s very Wisdom/Word. Epiphany, Pentecost, they all have their lessons. And Lent, too, as I’ll soon relate. But without some such calendar, the Church gathered and scattered plots out life together and life scattered in the world by other calendars, other stories. The liturgical calendar helps us make time sacred–to make our lives sanctified by living them according to other patterns than that of our respective cultures. The forces of secularization are everywhere mighty–and the liturgical calendar is a shield that helps us resist the secularizing of time in our lives. Without it, our churches still take note of the calendar, but worship is planned around President’s Day, and Independence Day, Groundhog Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day—a different narrative, often a RIVAL narrative, to the gospel.
So, I as a young preacher, started to plan my sermons and worship services according to the liturgical calendar, and then to use the New Common Lectionary so that I did not simply preach my hobby horses. (I did not, at first, tell my congregation what I was doing! And I remain Free Church enough to not be ENSLAVED to a tool like the Lectionary–which can be set aside if the Spirit leads to a special need of the church. And since the selections for the Season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time are more haphazzard than the rest of the lectionary–especially in Year C–I would preach through whole books during the summer, a tradition that Calvin called Lectio continua and which has deep roots in Baptist life. It still put me on someone else’s agenda so that I did not preach only “my favorite verses” or my own “canon within the canon.”)
But, I admit, that I didn’t at first “get” Lent. It seemed very “hair shirt” and to smack of “needless ritual.” Smudging the head with ashes? Fasting or renouncing something for forty (40) days while spending time in introspection and repentence? Isn’t that too much bemoaning our sin and not celebrating the grace and new life in Christ which is ours to claim? So, I dug into the history of Lent. (It’s what I do.) It arose AFTER the church was no longer an outlaw religion in the Roman empire. After Constantine’s shotgun wedding of church and empire, a process completed when Theodosius made the formerly illegal sect loved by women and slaves into the official Roman Imperial religion. Suddenly the church had huge numbers of “Christians” who were so for appearance only. Gone were the days of preparatory instruction (sometimes as much as 3 years!) before baptism (usually on Easter) into the church. Gone was the costliness of Christianity and the apparent difference between church and world. So, Lent arose out of the same process that created monasticism– a desire to help true Christians to reflect on the costliness of discipleship and to remind each other and ourselves that we are not the world, but strangers in an alien land (no matter how “Christian” our land claims to be) while the Lord tarries.
So, “dust to dust,” we are smudged with ash on a certain Wednesday to remind us of our mortality, both as frail creatures of dust, and as followers of the One who told us that following Him would lead to death. With Jesus our brother, author and pioneer of our faith, we “set our face(s) to Jerusalem,” toward rejection, betrayal, abandonment, persecution by the Powerful, and unjust death. Oh, there is triumph and joy coming, friends, but no one gets there without going through a certain Place of the Skull. We are living out a story in which none of us gets out alive–as even our baptisms proclaim. We are smudged on a Wednesday and then, helping us to set our faces to Jerusalem with Jesus, we practice the ancient discipline of fasting, we give up something, deprive ourselves–of meat or sweets or alcohol or all of the above. We embrace an extra practice, spending more time in prayer or visiting the sick, or any combination of the above. We do this not out of some dreadful masochism, as I once thought, but because discipline and privation provide FOCUS–for our minds, hearts, souls. “Purity of heart,” said Kierkegaard, “is to will ONE thing,” namely that which GOD wills. That takes focus, clarity. But the pure in heart, a Higher Authority than Kierkegaard even, assured us, will SEE GOD.
Thus, I, a Baptist, observe Lent. Not because I think ritual saves me–grace does that. Nor because Lent is the only way to remember we are NOT the world–the Amish remember without Lent quite nicely. But because this is one way that we can remember who we are and Whose we are ALONG WITH all our sisters and brothers in Christ. Lent not only purifies us as the Church, but, helps this Body of Christ be, for 40 days, a little over a month, somewhat less shattered and scattered and broken into fragments. Jesus prayed that we would all be one. I do not believe that takes a necessarily INSTITUTIONAL unity–but it will need to be a visible unity–and what could be more visible than the Body of Christ, Protestant and Catholic and Anglican (and, this year, the Eastern Orthodox on the same calendar) and Pentecostal and Free Church all being smudged with ash and practicing some form of fasting for 40 days?
Let us, with Jesus, set our faces toward Jerusalem tonight. “Remember, O Mortal, that Thou art Dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Amen.