So, some of you probably realize and others may not that we’re in a period right now in the so-called “Christian Year” which is known as “Lent.” Lent is a 40 day stretch starting with “Ash Wednesday” and leading up to Easter. The focus of Lent is fasting – abstaining from something in order to focus on God.
Lent’s been primarily the territory of Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the United Church – but Baptists have largely stayed out of it. I’m not entirely sure what has held Baptists back from participation. I suspect that early Baptists in an attempt to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic church decided to do away with the practice, especially since it doesn’t have a direct Biblical foundation. Nowhere does the Bible say “thou shalt fast for forty days in preparation for the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection.” And so, desiring to return the Church to the Bible, along with other Reformers, early Baptists eliminated the practice. But, do we only practice those things explicitly outlined in the Bible? Where does the Bible say “thou shalt assemble a worship team to lead in the singing of praise on Sunday mornings, and the words shall be displayed upon a screen for all to see”? Just because we’re not told to do it in the Bible, doesn’t make it unbiblical.
In the last 100 years, some in the Baptist world have become nervous about Lent because of it’s supposed pagan origins. In 1853, a Presbyterian minister named Alexander Hislop published a booklet called “The Two Babylons” which outlined a conspiracy theory as to how the Catholic Church and it’s practices are the direct descendant of Babylonian paganism. The booklet, which was later published as an expanded book in 1919, says this about Lent:
“Coming from the Anglo-Saxon Lencten, meaning “spring,” Lent originated in the ancient Babylonian mystery religion. The forty days’ abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess…Among the Pagans this Lent seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Tammuz (false Babylonian god).”
Sounds pretty nefarious doesn’t it? If only it was true. Scholars have unanimously discredited the accuracy of Hislop’s book. It has been called a “tribute to historical inaccuracy and know-nothing religious bigotry” with “shoddy scholarship, blatant dishonesty”, and a “nonsensical thesis.” It picks and chooses pieces of history that support its claims and then glue them together to build a ridiculous case with very little logical basis in historical fact.
Is it possible that Lent does resemble some pagan practices? Sure it is possible. But, if we’re going to get strict about it, we’d better change the date of Christmas (originally a pagan holiday), and many other Christian practices which have similarities to ancient paganism (see Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna).
If we can get past that Lent is not explicitly outlined in the Bible, and that it may resemble some pre-Christian pagan practices, I think there’s a great deal of good that can come from embracing it.
For starters, Lent is essentially fasting. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is clearly promoted in Scripture as a positive thing and is practiced by Jesus himself (Acts 13:2; 14:23; Luke 2:37; 5:33; 1 Cor 7:1-5; Matt 4:1-9).
We usually associate fasting with not eating, but fasting doesn’t have to be abstaining from food. It can be abstaining from anything that has become important to you. Some may choose to fast watching television, or playing video games, or facebook, or smoking, or other habits. The point is to cut out something from your life which is significant enough that it will “sting” a little not to have it anymore. And then, to use the self-denial of that thing as an opportunity to pray and be reminded of God’s presence in your life. Not to moan and complain – but to quietly and privately remember that God and not “things” must have first place on the throne of our hearts.
Lent is an opportunity that all Christians should take. It’s an opportunity, marked out on the calendar each year, for followers of Christ to refocus on Him. To give attention to the suffering of Jesus, and the cross, and the empty tomb, instead of always giving our attention to earthly things that distract.
This year, I’m observing Lent. I’m fasting unnecessary use of my iPhone – and have been developing a much more consistent devotional habit in it’s place. Is there something you can give up for a while? Consider it. A deeper relationship with Christ is worth it.