Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-14

What Is a Real Fast?

And so the Season of Lent begins.  It goes back to the early centuries when baptismal candidates fasted two or three days before their baptism on Easter Sunday.  By the fourth century, it was variously observed by the Church for forty days before the Easter celebration, forty being taken from our Lord’s time in the wilderness, but also Moses’ time on the “the mountain of God” (Exodus 19-32) and Elijah’s trek across the desert (1 Kings 19:1-8).  Later on, the first day of Lent was dubbed “Ash Wednesday” because of the imposition of ashes upon the forehead of the believer in a sign of mourning for sins and a desire to repent.

Lent is associated with self-examination, repentance, almsgiving, and fasting.  In our day, fasting has all but fallen into disuse.  It is a great pity.  The early Church understood that fasting was the way to teach oneself self-control.  And self-control in eating spilled over into self-control in other areas of life, such as holding the tongue and other sinful habits and impulses.

But, as the passage of Scripture above indicates, our Lord has another definition of fasting, one that includes but also goes beyond the surface.  Fasting while one continues in sin is worthless.  Fasting while one takes advantage of one’s neighbor is wicked.  Fasting with the idea that one can thereby make God a debtor is abhorrent.  No.  Fasting that God delights in is fasting from sin, taking care of the poor and homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and relieving the oppressed.  Our God desires that we learn self-control and humility through self-denial and the millennia-old practice of fasting – a needed corrective for our compulsive society.  But our God also desires that while we fast, we remember the poor.  Indeed, fasting puts us in mind of those who are without, as we voluntarily go without.  But let us not do so only in spirit.  Let us see to it that as we volunteer to go without certain of life’s necessities that we likewise volunteer to see that others go with them.

Then shall we see wonderful promises fulfilled: “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily … And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”

 

Introducing Lent to Evangelicals

The purpose of the Church Year is to give regularity to Christian devotion and worship by moving through a cycle.  Through the cycle of the year, we are forced for half of it (December through May) to focus on the life of Christ – his birth, life, passion, resurrection and ascension – and then to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.  This aids us in keeping those most important events in the life of the Church regularly before us, and those most important events have to do with the person and work of our Lord.  Many churches observe special days during the latter half of the year (June through November).  However, it is primarily the first half of the Church Year in which the major events in the life of our Lord are observed or celebrated.

I am not recommending the use of a lectionary, though I certainly do not condemn it.  I am simply advocating using the regularity of the Church Year as a guide to preaching.  Thus I preach through gospel texts surrounding the life of our Lord from Advent through Pentecost, about half the year.  During the summer, I take up a letter of the New Testament, and in the fall, spend time with an Old Testament book, until I come back around to Advent.

The Church Year begins with the Season of Advent in which we prepare for the coming of our Lord.  It begins the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, thus giving us four Sundays during Advent.  The Christmas Season is the celebration of our Lord’s coming and lasts twelve days, December 25 through January 5.  January 6 marks Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the gentiles, using the text of the visitation of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).  The next major season is Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday – forty days prior to Easter, not including Sundays.  Lent ends with Easter, which is also a season, lasting fifty days, Pentecost being that fiftieth day – the seventh Sunday after Easter Sunday.  And since our Lord ascended forty days from his resurrection (Acts 1:1-3, 6-11), that day is celebrated as the Ascension of our Lord, ten days prior to Pentecost.  After Pentecost is that time I spoke of already which is the other half of the Church Year.  So, we have:

Advent (four Sundays prior to Christmas); Christmas (December 25 through January 5); Epiphany (January 6); Ash Wednesday begins Lent (forty days prior to Easter, excluding Sundays); Easter Sunday (the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the Spring equinox on March 21, a season lasting fifty days); Ascension (the fortieth day of the Easter season, always on Thursday); Pentecost Sunday (the fiftieth day from, and including, Easter Sunday).

An Explanation for What Follows

What lies before you are devotional thoughts centered around passages of Scripture which are of particular use during the Lenten Season.  The Lenten Season is that season of the Church especially given to self-examination in the light of Holy Scripture, meditation upon the life of Christ, prayer, confession, repentance, fasting, and almsgiving.  The Season of Lent originates from early Church history in which baptismal candidates (catechumens) fasted two or three days before their baptism on Easter Sunday.  By the fourth century, Lent was variously observed in different parts of the empire for the forty days before Easter (minus Sundays), the number suggested by our Lord’s forty-day fast in the wilderness (also Moses’ stint on Mount Sinai and Elijah’s trek across the desert).  Generally, they did not eat until the evening meal each day, but this rule was often relaxed in different periods of Church history (See F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., [Oxford University Press, 1974, 1983; rpt. 1993], pp. 810-811).

The purpose of these devotions is obvious enough: To read and meditate upon the same passages of Scripture, that the Lord may speak to the whole church as we repent and turn to him.  We intentionally turn to Him in the hope that He will give unto us a teachable and humble spirit, realizing that it was He who was turning us towards Himself all along.  I hope that what I have written may be of some help towards understanding, and perhaps point in some directions for further reflection.  The readings are from the Law, a very fitting place to begin when one is seeking to examine oneself, and a wonderful preparation for the healing, forgiving, and victorious message of Easter.  We must experience Good Friday that we may truly celebrate Easter Sunday.  And although we are saved once for all, seasons of personal reflection and self-examination are helpful in our sanctification.

It intrigues me that churches today will have “Fifty-Day Adventures” and such, and often just before Easter.  I wonder if they know that the Church has always had just such a period of time, called the “Season of Lent,” in which she focused her energies on specific Scripture readings, prayer, meditation, and self-examination.  And while I’m sure such “Adventures” are worthwhile, helping us find our “purpose” in life, I believe that the ancient and fifteen-hundred-year-old observance of Lent is far more edifying, especially given the topic: Confession and repentance centered around our Lord’s passion and resurrection.  Lent is not about us but our Lord as we focus on him, that we may truly find ourselves in him.

And now a word about fasting.  In ancient and medieval times, some Christians fasted until the evening meal.  That’s very difficult day after day.  A far better thing might be to fast from certain foods.  (Throughout history, this included meat and meat products, fish, and dairy products, but that is strictly up to you as a free person in Christ Jesus.  You may choose simply to go with smaller portions of what you usually eat.)  The point is to go without something, to make a small sacrifice.  You will earn nothing towards heaven; you will gain no rewards.  We have been rewarded enough.  But our Lord did say that we would fast after the Bridegroom was taken away (Matthew 9:15).  By doing so, we identify ourselves with the One who made the supreme sacrifice.  We also teach ourselves self-control.  The early Church Fathers felt that fasting was the best way, not only to control the appetite, but to control other passions of the flesh as well, such as, anger, gossip, and other inordinate sensual desires.  Intentional self-control in regards to the stomach spills over into other areas of life.  But do NOT be legalistic.  What works for others may not work for you.  If this is your first time, go easy on yourself.  Of course, if you have a medical condition, only do what that allows.  Remember, little sacrifices out of love for God.

The passages of Scripture chosen for this devotional are taken from the Liturgy of the Hours of the Catholic Church used by the priests for their daily devotions (with some of my own modifications).  It is the only tool I know that has readings prescribed for everyday of the year according to the season of the year, with the exception of the Anglican (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.   I hope no Baptist takes offense at this as the devotions are all my own; the Bible, of course, is the Bible regardless of which denomination orders the readings.  All of the passages in this devotional are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

It has been a blessing for me to write these things for you, and in no way a chore.  I hope that my reflections do not get in the way of your experiencing and understanding God’s word.  If they are a hindrance, then by all means set my musings aside for the pure word of God, which is meat and drink to hungry and thirsty souls.  May the Lord give unto us a spirit of repentance this Lenten Season whereby we are able to put off the sins which so easily beset us and rejoice in the glorious freedom of the children of God.  May we know His grace and forgiveness, and may such abound in God’s church that she may experience peace and concord in her midst, that God may use her to do great and mighty things for Him in these latter days before His coming.