Friday, March 10, 2017

Do You Have A Smudge? Why Are Protestants Doing Lent?

"You have Good Friday?"
"Yes, we do! Isn't it great?"
"Maybe, but why?"
"I'm not sure, but it isn't really a big deal to us."
"It's the death of the Lord."
"Yes, but Easter is on a Sunday, so it's more important."

The community in question was a local Dallas megachurch. Fifteen thousand souls pass through its wide gate every Sunday, having signed an official statement of membership that they agree with each of the church's numerous detailed position papers. It is a jeans, t-shirt, and rock band establishment meant to bring evangelicalism as close to mainstream American culture as possible without explicitly becoming a part of it. 

They may not do Ash Wednesday and Lent, but like many protestant churches in the United States it has adopted "liturgical" things to draw people through the doors because it resembles what the masses expect Christianity to be. A poignant article by one R. Scott Clark, fitting entitled "Relevance" Leads Back to Rome, rightly recalls the Reformed theologian Cavlin's aphorism that the human heart is an "idol factory" and prone to make ceremonies into something they are not. Where Mr. Clark errs is in ignoring human nature and the history of those who lived just after Biblical times. Lent was not invented at Nicaea in 325, it was the fast of catechumens before reception into the Church on Pascha extended to all the faithful in preparation for the great feast; the period itself is doubtlessly a spiritual imitation of the forty years in the desert and the penance of the Ninevites. If we are to get rid of developments of spirituality based on Biblical origins in favor of how we, years later, read Biblical texts then a sola scriptura believer ought not go to services on Sunday, but after dinner on Saturday night as in the days of Saint Paul.

If those in "Bible churches" want to follow an instinct inherent in the Baptized person to live more concretely in the life and events in the Bible and the times of Christ, then they should follow it. They may be surprised to find themselves arriving at an entirely different understanding of "works". 

After all, what did make the Church of Jerusalem—not "Rome"—begin those ceremonies at the Holy Places anyway? Was it not to venerate Christ at the foot of the Cross? To stand at the empty tomb on the morning of the Resurrection? To proclaim Him king in song on Palm Sunday and in tears five days later? Yet Mr. Clark is right, all of this is extraneous to the evangelical mindset. Perhaps Tradition is more than a set of un-Biblical customs; perhaps it is a set of customs that makes the life and events in the Good Book both present and comprehensible for all generations, and unto ages of ages.


  1. The Rad Trad: Excellent point! Why are they "doing" Lent, indeed? Even more outré (for the vast majority of Protestants) is Ash Wednesday, a quintessentially Roman practice, in its origins, at least. I like your point that they seem compelled to do what's expected of Christianity (thanks to popular entertainment and its emphasis on Catholic symbols) but without seeming actually to embrace the reality behind the practice. I was once buttonholed by a Presbyterian ministrix who proudly explained how her church had a big Ash Wednesday service (in the evening) and then how everyone repaired to the church hall to have a big ol' chili dinner (con carne, naturally). I wondered if they had a steak cook-out on Good Friday. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton complained of something similar in colonial America: Anglicans singing "we come to Thee, fasting" on Ash Wednesday and then following up with a pancake breakfast.

    Somehow, with all their groping toward good works and "historic Christianity," they manage to be edifying and annoying at the same time.

    1. More likely a potluck than a pancake breakfast! There's a decent little coffee shop located within a nearby "Bible church" in my town, and I have noticed there a proliferation of flyers advertising Lenten services with some bullet-point advice for how to "grow spiritually" during this time. The stock photo used has a young man with an ashen smudge on his forehead and a doe-eyed look on his face. Outside, there's a large metal cross between two park benches that is engraved unhideously with biblical scenes. I kept wondering if I had accidentally stumbled onto a rebranded Catholic Community Complex, but there were people reading Bibles inside, so I confirmed they were Protestants.

    2. "But there were people reading Bibles inside, so I confirmed they were Protestants": you're making me laugh ... and on a Friday in Lent. Pro pudor!

    3. Even Protestants brag about their "Trips to the Holy Land," where they take Bible tours, upload dozens of on-site photos to Facebook, and come back with bottles full of water from the River Jordan. (I remember being offered one in my Protestant days. The water was filthy.) They won't call these pilgrimages, but it all amounts to the same thing.